This Sunday (3/26) a joint Iraqi-US Special Forces team conducted an assault in which 16 people were killed, 3 were wounded, and one man being held hostage was freed. According to US commanders the 16 people were insurgents, the structure in which they were held up was a secular building. According to Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr the building in question was a mosque, those killed were worshippers. One need not question the sincerity of US commanders to know that this situation does not bode well for the Coalition mission in Iraq. The whole truth of the incident may never be knowable, yet the very fact that the Coalition and the Iraqi government disagree as to whether or not casualties of the conflict were "insurgents" poses a serious conundrum that compels analysis.
There are basically three possibilities, each of which bears serious negative implications for the Coalition mission in Iraq (though to varying degrees):
1)The situation was basically as Minister Jabr and others have described it, and the joint US-Iraqi patrol accidentally targeted innocent civilians. If so the incident need not necessarily be held up as an indictment of the US military mission, it could simply be a tragic mistake induced by the fog of war. What is most troubling in this particular case, however, is that as grave a situation as such a mistake would create, this is by far the most optimistic of the three possible scenarios. If those killed on Sunday were innocent worshippers one need not dig deeply to find the source of Shi'ite anger over this incident. If any part of what US commanders currently say is true, however, then the possible motives of Shi'ite politicians like Mr. Jabr become quite complex, and none of those possibilities bode well for the US.
2)Those killed in the raid were armed members of a Shi'ite militia group (most likely Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army). If so then the other aspects of the US report were likely true- the militiamen used deadly force against the joint team and were holding an innocent (presumably Sunni Arab) detainee. The use of the term "insurgents" to describe such combatants by the US military is understandable- whatever those militiamen had done before Sunday the moment they turned their guns on US and (especially) Iraqi soldiers they became insurgents. But the strident denials and accusations of the Shi’ite political leadership underscore a troubling fact. If those “insurgents” were, in fact, Shi’ite militiamen they belonged to a constituency that in ordinary circumstances supports the nascent government and is represented within its leadership. If those constituents become “insurgents” in any significant numbers then the entire complexion of the Iraq conflict will have been completely transformed and the task of state-building will become exponentially more difficult.
3)Though scenario #2 is bad, there is one possibility which is even worse (in the sense of portending even greater difficulties for the Coalition)- that the 16 people killed in the raid were in fact Sunni Arab insurgents, and that for ulterior motives the Shi’ite political leadership is seizing upon the ambiguities of this incident to fabricate a crisis.
Of these three possibilities #2 may be judged most likely by appeal to Occam’s Razor; many dark purposes and coincidental mishaps would have to be afoot for #1 or #3 to be the “absolute truth.” Deciding which of these three scenarios is “real,” however, is not essential toward analyzing the implications of the current crisis except as a matter of degree. If the Shi’ite political leadership in Iraq felt that their political and strategic interests were completely aligned with those of the Coalition their reaction would not be this extreme even if scenario #1 were the case, and scenario #3 would be totally unimaginable. Even President Talabani’s eminently reasonable step of convening a joint Iraqi-American investigative committee would not have been necessary even in the case of scenario #1- Shi’ite leaders would have found a much less complicated way of letting the US military off the hook for a clearly regrettable mistake.
Whatever actually happened on Sunday, what is going on right now in Baghdad is very clear. A negotiation is transpiring, one between the Shi’ite political leadership and the Coalition command over control of the political and military machinery of the emergent Iraqi state. The Coalition (and behind them the governments and citizenry of the US and its allies) want to see an Iraqi government that possesses a monopoly on the use of force, that fully integrates secular and Kurdish Iraqis, and that will foster a political process that may draw Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency. The current crisis indicates that the Shi’ite political leadership are opposed to some or all of these objectives- they would preserve the independence of the Shi’ite militias from the Iraqi regular army, insist upon a cabinet and prime minister of their choosing and their constituency, and would defend their followers’ prerogative to pursue a bloody campaign of anti-Sunni sectarian violence. Determining how many of and to what degree these goals are cherished by Shi’ite leaders requires discovering how far removed their claims about Sunday’s incident diverge from actual events. Even if everything Shi’ite leaders claim about the incident is true, their strident denunciations and unequivocal political response (the Shi’ite parliamentarians’ break-off of negotiations for a new government, the Baghdad governor’s unilateral termination of US-Iraqi security coordination) send a clear message that their priorities diverge from those of the Coalition and will be acted on nonetheless.
A negotiation is in process, and it is hard to see how the Coalition can possibly come out the winner. Shi’ite leaders are playing a very strong hand- if pushed too hard they could quit the government and throw their militias into the insurgency. This would not spell absolute defeat for the Coalition, but it would exponentially complicate the political and military task at hand. The US army has defeated Shi’ite militias in the field before and would most likely do so again, but if the militias were driven underground the loss of the security shield they have been providing would leave sensitive targets like the Golden Mosque more vulnerable to attack by the Sunni insurgency, setting in motion a potentially endless vicious cycle of accelerating sectarian violence and making the strategic climate increasingly more dangerous not only for Iraqis but for Coalition forces as well.
Such a situation would obviously pose risks for the Shi’ite leadership, but they may well feel that another armed conflict with the US military will do much less to erode their position of leadership than joining the kind of government the Coalition desires would do to improve it. They may also feel that the Coalition has much more to lose from an open break with the Shi’ite leadership than vice-versa, and in this perception they would seem to be very correct. US commanders are effectively caught between Scylla and Charybdis- if they “blink” and concede Shi’ite leaders the degree of control and autonomy they demand the resulting sectarian violence will greatly deter efforts toward a political resolution of the insurgency. If they force the issue and drive the Shi’ite parties into an openly hostile posture toward the emergent government they may face the same spike in sectarian violence coupled with the lethal opposition of the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades. Looking ahead it seems certain that this negotiation instigated by Sunday’s incident can only end one way- with US officials further alienated from political control of the state-building process and military control of the counterinsurgency.
All of this raises the question of what the US should do next. One option is to call the Shi’ite leadership’s bluff and push the long-standing political agenda of the Coalition. This option is all too likely to result in the worst-case scenario described above, however. Another possibility is to back away from demands for a unity government and an end to sectarian violence on the part of the militias and continue the Coalition mission at current levels. This option is much safer in the short-term but carries with it very serious long-term risks. If the Shi’ite political leadership come to feel that they may depend on the security shield of the US army in the absence of any checks upon their political program their aggression may not ultimately be exclusively directed at their Sunni compatriots. Their confidence might lead them into policies that violently alienate the Kurdish and secular Arab constituents of the nascent government, at which point the Coalition would be faced with an irreparable political process and irredeemable strategic chaos.
Faced with these possibilities, a staged withdrawal becomes the increasingly imperative option left to the Coalition. In the short term a gradual withdrawal would likely produce a spike in insurgent violence. But in the long term a withdrawal will have two crucial effects:
1)It will drive a wedge between the most extreme elements of the Sunni insurgency led by Al Qaeda and secular Sunni Arabs with whom they are currently allied. In the face of the threat posed by the US ideological and nationalist tensions have already somewhat undermined the operational unity of the Sunni Arab insurgency, in the absence of that threat those tensions would likely cause the insurgent “coalition” to crack and hemorrhage personnel into the political process.
2)US withdrawal would undermine the secure complacency of the Shi’ite political leadership. Left to defeat the insurgency on their own they would most likely avoid alienating their secular and Kurdish governmental co-participants and rein in the bloody sectarian violence being perpetrated by the militias.
It would be alarmist to suggest that the crisis set in motion by Sunday’s incident (whatever actually occurred) spells imminent doom for the Coalition mission. Even so, it is hard to see how coming days and weeks will fail to end with the range of strategic options open to the Coalition significantly narrowed. Future historians looking back on current events may well mark this week as a crucial turning point that set the Iraq conflict moving in a fundamentally new direction.