Thursday, February 8, 2007

Slouching toward D-day

The battle for Baghdad has officially begun. It's a double bill involving suppression of Sunni militants and defanging Sadr City, the vast Shi'ite enclave that staunchly backs cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army. This counterinsurgency against classic guerrilla tactics with popular support is doomed. Inevitably, Iran will be blamed.

Feb 9, 2007


By Pepe Escobar

The war clock is ticking for the United States, both in Iraq and with Iran. The US-maneuvered United Nations deadline for Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment program is now less than two weeks away. On February 21, the UN's nuclear watchdog will report on whether Iran has heeded the Security Council's demand to stop enriching uranium - to date it has not.

It might be tempting to see detente in the air. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was assured by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the White House will not attack Iran. Early this week in Tehran, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, said in a joint press conference with the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, that Iraq fully supports direct talks between the US and Iran.

In reality, the mood in Tehran is increasingly grim. Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards, positively scared state-TV viewers - a rarity in media-controlled Iran - when he said the US will try to strike Iran and he's willing to "become a martyr". It's as if Tehran has finally drawn the implications of a two-pronged hardcore militarization of the eastern Mediterranean region. On the one hand there is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allied with Israel against Syria, on the other the Persian Gulf, where the US is lining up against Iran.

The mood in Iraq may be even grimmer as the will of the US, through the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, is imposed over Baghdad. In official spin, the Iraqi police and the army, under a joint Sunni-Shi'ite command, have begun the much-anticipated double bill of attacking Sunnis and Sadr City, the vast Shi'ite enclave in Baghdad that staunchly backs cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army.

The trouble is, the police are heavily infiltrated by the Mehdi Army and the national army is basically staffed by the SCIRI's Badr Organization.

"The implementation of the prime minister's plan has already begun and will be fully implemented at a later date," US military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell said on Wednesday.

Additionally, the Maliki government cynically toes the Bush administration line, accusing Syria of allowing Sunni jihadis to cross the border and perpetrate at least half of the current carnage.

Al-Zaman daily in its Iraqi edition informed that all non-Baghdadi combatants in these same Iraqi police and army - ie the Kurds, as well as southern Shi'ites - will be showered with cash to make sure they do their job. In essence, the stage in Iraq is being set for the first widespread battle of the "Shi'ite crescent" against the "axis of fear" (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates).

Mistah Kurtz he not dead
The Pentagon's new batch of "warrior intellectuals" and counterinsurgency aces dripping with PhDs have begun their Baghdad strike - but so has the Sunni Arab muqawama (resistance), which, according to the Islammemo website, is now polishing its own counter-plan against "Safavid-American aggression". "Safavids" is a common Sunni reference to the Persian dynasty that converted Iraq to Shi'ism in the 16th century.
The resistance plan is a mirror image of the Pentagon's. It also divides the capital into military sectors under a central command. Shoulder-fired missiles will be downing more CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters in (still Sunni) western Baghdad - as happened on Wednesday.

Joint army checkpoints are now in place under dozens of flyovers, protected by tanks and barbed wire - not to mention those provoking extra traffic jams in Baghdad's scarred boulevards. Nobody can drive from central Baghdad to Sadr City without passing through a massive checkpoint swarming with army and police commandos. Sadr City is under police commandos. Most bridges over the Tigris River are blocked.

The US risks a worse fate than Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Its Colonel Walter Kurtz is the heart of darkness itself, the haunting face of wasteland Baghdad. There's no way these counterinsurgency aces will win against classic guerrilla tactics with popular support - especially on two fronts (the muqawama and the Sadrists). Iraqis will never accept foreign occupation or "redeployment". They know this war was never about "democracy". So whatever the US does - with or without airborne hell - it is already a failure.

Which brings us back to the whole point in this folly: Iran.

Since 2004, inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been able to "go anywhere and see anything" in Iran - according to the agency's own assessment. This includes the latest visit this past Saturday to the uranium-conversion plant in Isfahan. Visitors this time included members of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77 developing nations, the Arab League and, for the first time, journalists. In sum, that was a real sample of what otherwise passes for the "international community". The visitors were in synch: an attack on Iranian nuclear installations would be catastrophic.

But even coyotes in the Mojave Desert now know that Admiral William J Fallon, the new head of CentCom, a specialist in planning air/sea warfare, may be itching to set fire to the Strait of Hormuz. They also know that US President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hold constitutional power to order a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran.

It may be dawning on the nationalist theocracy leadership in Tehran how perilous Iran's position really is. Tehran has to be extra-careful not to fall into Washington's trap of scrapping the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether - or, in exasperation, throwing out IAEA inspectors. Tehran knows it must counter at every stance the trap of "Iranian networks" inside Iraq. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates now alleges, without proof, that 70% of the improvised explosive devices killing US troops are Iran-connected. And Tehran has also to counterpunch the massive Israeli propaganda of "a second Holocaust".

Every major player also knows that the chain of pretexts is already established: the shaky Maliki government fails to meet the United States' security "benchmarks" (as it certainly will); Iran is set up for the fall; Washington engineers a provocation in the Persian Gulf; the path is cleared for a Congress-approved "defensive" US strike. Democrats in Congress are doing little to prevent the escalation, when they could at least organize themselves to torpedo the "use of force" authorization for Iraq and pass a law preventing the Bush administration from attacking Iran. Russia, China and the European (dis)Union also remain paralyzed.

In Iraq, Muqtada is in a win-win situation (and so is the SCIRI's Badr Organization: its death squads may take a nap during the US surge to wake up stronger than ever in a few months).

Sadrism cannot be wiped out by any escalation: as a nationalist movement, it will always thrive. The Mehdi Army has more fighters in Baghdad than the US - with or without the surge of 21,500 troops. In the event the Sadrists are heavily bombed by the US in the Battle of Sadr City, Muqtada has the luxury of ordering a counterpunch as soon as he's secure of being supported by enough Sunni tribal sheikhs (he has been courting them for months).

And as US casualties skyrocket, Bush will inevitably blame Tehran. We're back, ominously, once again, to the heart of darkness: the path cleared for a US "defensive" strike against Iran.

Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.

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