Saturday, April 4, 2009

Iraq: Is it over? Not by a long shot!

And what will the US do when the pot starts to boil and the lid starts to pop off?

A correspondent for The National files a riveting account of a truly scary expedition into the Jihad section of Baghdad, ending with a scary car chase that ends, happily for her, with the reporter reaching an Iraqi army checkpoint before she's caught by scary guys in balaclavas. And this is inside Baghdad, not in the boonies. That such accounts have become so rare of late may not be as much a reflection of an improved situation as of the diminished number of journalists covering Iraq now. After all, "we" have won there, because - haven't you heard? - the Surge worked.

Except that we're no closer now to a political reconciliation than we were a year ago. Kirkuk's ultimate disposition (in Kurdistan, or under Baghdad's - i.e., Arab - control?) is still up for grabs. Mosul is seeing bombings and killing every day. The Sunni sahwa/"Awakening"/Sons of Iraq militias are both running scared from the Iraqi army (comprised as it is of mostly Shiite militia members; no love lost there) and preparing to repel them, along with their US back-ups - their erstwhile patrons and paymasters who, now in their eyes, have betrayed them to the not-so-tender mercies of Mr. al-Maliki. And if need be - and if the price is right - some of them will hook up again with members of the anti-occupation resistance, as well as al-Qaeda jihadists.

Meanwhile, reports are that some disaffected elements of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army are lying low, waiting for the US troops to leave Baghdad and other cities (as they are enjoined to do - by end of this July - according to the SOFA concluded at the end of Bush's tenure) before they reassert themselves.

Mr. al-Maliki seems to feel increasingly confident that his security forces can deal with any and all internal threats without US help (even if he has no Iraqi air force or air cover to speak of - which means he will need to rely indeed on US air cover, just as in the 1920s and 1930s Iraq's king Faisal had to count on the RAF as he worked to keep his fractious new nation together). But, let's face it: Barring divine or extraterrestrial intervention in the next several months, the pilot light for re-igniting the fires beneath Iraq's ethnic and sectarian cauldron will be burning steadily when US forces pull out of Iraq's cities. There are going to be "incidents" - and calls for revenge and settling of still unsettled scores. Will the US be able to walk away?

(A brief but necessary digression: Is Mr. Netanyahu counting on the US troops to walk away? Reports from the Israeli press are that, unless the US forces Iran to back down from its nuclear enrichment program, he intends to launch a military strike against Iran in summer 2010, with the understanding that many US troops will have left Iraq by then and will therefore be less in harm's way from any Iranian response.)

Or, if not, will the US be able to carry on with its planned "surge" of forces into an increasingly less stable "Af-Pak" theater?

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