January 21, 2007
It could well be the epitaph for the ruinous presidency of George Bush the second, that he disdained reality. The attitude was rather neatly expressed as far back as 2002, by a senior official within the administration, who had occasion to upbraid a journalist who had stepped beyond the strict norms of criticism laid down by the White House. The trouble he said, is that there were just too many journalists who were grounded in the “reality-based community” and suffered the delusion that the world could be understood through the “judicious” study of “discernible” facts. That, though, was simply not the way things worked. Like it or not, the U.S. was an empire that created its own reality. As lesser beings went to work in “judiciously” examining new realities, the empire would move on, creating yet more novel facts. Circumstances had created two distinct groups of people. On one side were “history’s actors” and on the other stood those whose lot it would be to “study” what destiny’s chosen few did.
Facts, though have proved difficult to dislodge in Iraq, even for the masters of the global empire. And as the world has watched in disbelief, Bush has continued to proudly create his own reality. If the electoral debacle he faced in November had awoken Bush to a situation that looked perilously like ignominy, the world could have drawn some reassurance and indeed, allowed some latitude for a slow learner -- one who responds to political adversity, even if he remains wilfully oblivious to the horrors inflicted on remote corners of the globe.
Quite apart from the electoral hiding, Bush was also given an indulgent but stern lecture in geopolitical complexities by a group of seniors in the business, including a man who served his father loyally through election campaigns and wars. Just a month after Bush had in the reckless abandon of the midterm elections campaign, come up with a blithe prediction of imminent victory, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) co-chaired by James A. Baker, Secretary of State under George Bush the first, turned in its considered opinion that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating”. Rather than make a bad situation worse, Baker and his associates strongly urged a scaling back of the U.S. military profile to a less conspicuous training role. A withdrawal of U.S. forces, the ISG proposed, could be initiated at the same time, accompanied by “new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region”.
The ISG recommendations were in important respects, proffered in defiance of Bush’s own wishes. Though derived from a common-sense reading of the situation, the proposal for initiating “constructive” diplomatic engagements with Iran and Syria, breached an explicitly stated prohibition of the Bush cabal. Again, the linkage that the ISG drew between the continuing denial of Palestinian rights and the turmoil in the region, broke perhaps the most sacred taboo of U.S. politics.
On January 10, Bush announced what he imagined, would be a grand new vision for victory. Despite polls recording public disapproval running at over 60 percent, he ordered an additional 20,000 combat troops into Iraq. This new force level would in his estimation, pacify Baghdad, which in turn would restore a semblance of order to the whole country. This gamble with the lives of U.S. troops came with admonitions that the Iraqi government would be held to strict standards of performance. The government headed by Nuri Al-Maliki of the Da’wa Al-Islamiyya -- a Shi’a denominational party, which shares power with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), another party grounded in the same constituency -- has now been enjoined to bring on board the estranged people of the Sunni Muslim faith, to end the ostracism of individuals associated with the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, to restore order to the oil industry, in part by assuring all sections of their rightful shares, and to take necessary steps to disarm the riotous proliferation of militias.
The aim of the higher U.S. force level, working with Iraqi personnel in the rough ratio of one to two-and-a-half, would be to “clear, secure and build” each quarter of the chaotic Iraqi capital city. Just to underline its serious intent and good faith, the U.S. has committed an augmented flow of aid to Iraq: an allocation of over a billion dollars for the restoration of that country’s thoroughly eroded civilian infrastructure.
This may seem like a small burden for the U.S. to bear. Following the authoritative pronouncement by the U.N. that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, it would be evident that war reparations are no act of goodwill, but a legal imperative the U.S. is obliged to bear. And a billion dollars as special dispensation for a country that once was the envy of the region for the quality of its social services, is small recompense for the damage inflicted on its civilian infrastructure by U.S. vengefulness, beginning with the 1991 war of destruction and the punishing regime of sanctions that followed.
Yet, assuming the security machinery is in place, are the political underpinnings right? Or has Iraq reached the stage where, to paraphrase Martin Luther King’s magnificent rebellion against the Vietnam war in 1967, “there is nothing to build on – save bitterness”? In a radio broadcast shortly after a visit to Baghdad in June 2006, Bush assured the U.S. that Maliki was a leader who could be trusted: “His top priority is securing Baghdad, so Coalition and Iraqi forces have launched Operation Together Forward, a joint effort to restore security and the rule of law to high-risk areas of the city. To help the Prime Minister improve security, we will continue embedding coalition transition teams in Iraqi army and police units….”
Operation Together Forward got off to a rocky start, was reassessed and launched afresh as a Hollywood style sequel titled “Together Forward II”. Soon afterwards, it was abandoned, since Maliki seemed uninterested in keeping his side of the bargain. Early-November, Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor to the U.S. President, filed a top secret report based on an extended series of interactions, offering a rather dubious assessment of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s intentions: “Despite Maliki’s reassuring words, repeated reports from our commanders on the ground contributed to our concerns about Maliki’s government. Reports of non-delivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister’s office to stop military action against Shi’a targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shi’a majorities in all ministries… all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shi’a power in Baghdad”.
This assessment of Maliki’s intentions did not prevent the U.S. from being an accessory in the sordid execution of former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, as the year drew to an end. It seemed at first glance, a rather bizarre decision to make a public spectacle of the hanging, though on deeper consideration, those who retained some faith in the Iraqi political dispensation ordained by the U.S., may have been willing to accept it as a well-intended effort to establish that a page had been turned in a nation’s tortured history.
The plot though, went awry when the man expected to play the part of the criminal, failed to follow the script. The authorised video showed a man walking to the gallows with preternatural composure and listening attentively to his hangmen’s instructions. With Saddam going to his death like a warrior rather than a criminal, the masters of the occupation were left to cope with the popular backlash. There was initially, a deep sense of cultural offence caused by the execution of a member of the faith on the day that Sunni Muslims were beginning their religious observance of Eid ul-Adha. And even before this deliberate insult could be forgotten, a video recorded on mobile phone was posted on the internet, providing a far more authentic view of the event than the muted images broadcast over Iraq’s official TV. With his hangmen chortling in delight at the plight they had reduced a former head of state to, Saddam is shown in this video, responding with calm and cordial sarcasm. The impact was devastating. As a commentator in the Guardian wrote, the scornful reproaches that Saddam delivered to his hangmen could well be “his epitaph, exemplifying his defiance and condemning his lynching party”. “Saddam's killers have achieved the impossible,” the article concluded: “they have made us feel sympathy for him… There may not have been dignity in the dying, but there was courage.”
As the import of the unauthorised video began to sink in, the organisers of the lynch mob began their salvage operation. Bush authorised senior officials to go public about their efforts to defer the execution till after the Eid observance, so that serious doubts about legal process could be assuaged. The appeals process, they said, had been concluded in less than a month and may have been hurried through to enable Maliki to fulfil a vow that Saddam would not live to see the new year. Moreover, not one member of Iraq’s presidential troika had signed the death warrant and Maliki had decided, without clear sanction, to dispense with the constitutional requirement for all three signatures.
Maliki’s damage control sought to deflect global outrage over the ghoulish images by blaming the messenger. But the arrest of two prison guards for the unauthorised video persuaded nobody. The public prosecutor who officiated over the execution, was already on record with the information that one of the two witnesses making cellphone recordings of the execution, was Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, the National Security Adviser in the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office. Rubaie himself was quick to come out with a furious denial, but the suspicion that a senior official in Maliki’s administration may have been the source of the grisly images, was not easily dispelled.
As a puppet regime’s actions turned into an international public relations disaster, U.S. officials – anxious to avoid renewed obloquy – went public with their perception that Maliki “never fully explained his urgency in carrying out the death sentence”. The final explanation proffered by the U.S. – that it was unwilling to stand in the way of a sovereign decision – was little less than laughable for an occupying power that was in the process of significantly augmenting force levels on sovereign Iraqi territory, despite opposition from the Iraqi government.
Since the elections of December 2005 – conducted under extremely contentious circumstances – every action and utterance of the U.S. has betrayed a complete disregard for the prized virtue of national sovereignty. To begin with, the choice of Maliki as Prime Minister was the outcome of strenuous exertions by the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. The first two names on the list fielded by the United Iraq Alliance – comprised in the main of the Da’wa and SCIRI – were Abdelaziz Al-Hakim and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari.
Hakim’s decades-long proximity to Iran was a major concern of the U.S. The Badr Brigade, armed wing of SCIRI, had fought alongside Iran in the eight-year long war against Iraq. But as a senior Shi’a cleric, Hakim in a sense, disqualified himself from the mundane tasks of wielding temporal administrative authority. Jaafari, who should then have been the logical choice, was voted down by the U.S. on the grounds that he was all through a long period of exile in Iran, known to have acquired an unseemly proximity to the clerical regime in Teheran. Maliki’s choice as prime minister, after much acrimony, was seen as a declaration of independence from Iran. Having spent most of his exile in Syria rather than Iran, Maliki was seen to owe his primary fealty to the spirit of Arab nationalism, rather than a wider denominational solidarity of the Shi’a. Being the first choice of neither the Da’wa nor SCIRI, Maliki was by the circumstances of his choice, made hostage to forces loyal to the radical Shi’a cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr.
By late-2006, the U.S. was exploring ways of bringing Hakim and moderate Sunni political formations in line with Maliki, thereby freeing him in part from his irksome bondage to the Sadr flock. This strategy was entirely consistent with the line of action urged by Stephen Hadley in his November memo to the U.S. president. But Washington’s task is to square an impossible circle. The Sadr militia is relatively autonomous of Iran, but has twice demonstrated its willingness to frontally engage U.S. forces in combat. Hakim is a more conciliatory figure in the context of Iraqi politics, but whatever Washington’s aims in Iraq, they do not include transforming the country into a satellite of Iran. To achieve even a modicum of political order and spare itself the humiliation of a tumultuous retreat reminiscent of Vietnam, the U.S. needs at the very least, to neutralise the militias, starting with Sadr’s Jaish Al-Mahdi. And that job it is realising to its utter dismay, cannot be accomplished without talking terms with Hakim.
As in the past, when it spurned opportunities for political engagement and rushed in with shows of force, the U.S. has responded to this conundrum by raising its military profile in the Gulf. An aircraft carrier battle-group has set sail to join the one already cruising off Iranian territorial waters. And within Iraq, the U.S. military has on two occasions within a month, overruled objections from Iraqi authorities to take Iranian diplomats and their aides into custody.
Those looking for the ultimate Vietnam parallel have it here. In 1969, just a month after his inauguration as U.S. president, Richard Nixon began under the influence of national security adviser Henry Kissinger, to secretly broaden the barbaric aerial war then underway against Vietnam. Bombing Cambodia was considered a necessary military response to the prolonged stalemate in Vietnam – where the U.S. was evidently losing strategically even as it won every tactical engagement. As documented by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has provided the sharpest insights into the deeply paranoiac mood of the Nixon administration: “The bombing became a turning point not only in the war but also in the mentality of the White House. The secret of that bombing - and hundreds of later missions - would be kept for five years. Eventually, the secret became more important to the White House than the bombing…”.
Far from engaging Iran and Syria in talks, the Bush administration has taken the option that comes naturally to it. This shift of focus since the ISG report was submitted – from the possibility of cooperation to the certainty of confrontation – was entirely foretold. Initial responses from Bush were dismissive of the potential rewards of diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. And the Israeli government for its part, chipped in with loud disclaimers about any connection between the turmoil in Iraq and the wider issue of justice for the Palestinians. British Prime Minister Tony Blair meanwhile, executed a trademark political pirouette: he initially welcomed the ISG recommendation to engage all the states in the region, but realising soon enough that he had stepped out of line of the U.S. diktat, began an arduous effort to make amends.
Blair’s rather shifty approach represents the very real tensions that have begun to surface, which have even unsettled the self-righteous complacence of the Saudi Arabian ruling family. Saudi King Abdullah in November summoned U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to Riyadh, to lecture him on the need for greater urgency over the multiple crises in the region. He is also reported to have told Cheney that the Saudis would be obliged to fill any vacuum that may be caused by a precipitate U.S. withdrawal. This undertaking came in the shape of a vow to fund and arm the Sunni militias in Iraq. By early-January, the Saudi regime had by some accounts, raised the stakes, vowing to send its armed forces into Iraq to counter the growing power of the Shi’a militias.
The alarms sounding within Saudi ruling circles offer compelling evidence that the wheel of history has turned full circle. If Iraq’s declaration of war against Iran in 1980 was tragedy, then the Saudi dynasty’s call to arms against the same adversary is history repeating itself as farce. For Iraq, Shi’a militancy was a constant internal threat all through the 1970s. Imam Khomeini, the spiritual guide of the Shi’a faith in Iran, was for much of this decade, living in the Iraqi city of Najaf, a silent but powerful influence on denominational politics in his country of exile. As Vice President then – and the principal architect of the modernisation programme that unleashed violent forces of tribal and sectarian revanchism – Saddam was relentless in his attitude towards this brand of politics, spearheaded in the main by the Hakim and Sadr clerical dynasties. “What we must do”, he argued, “is to oppose the institutionalisation of religion in the state and society… Let us return to the roots of our religion, glorifying them – but not introduce it into politics”.
The Hakim clan was the first to face the ruthless determination of Saddam’s modernisation drive. By 1979, Shi’a resentment at their exclusion from political power had fused with the dislocations of modernisation. Though Saddam's reforms through the 1970s had targeted the Shi’a population for special benefits, aspirations for a share in political power remained unfulfilled. The secularisation programmes of the 1970s - including the state takeover of the revenues of religious institutions and the land reforms that terminated traditional tribal forms of control - had moreover, created a disgruntled elite among the Shi’a, who responded with expected fervour to the appeal of the Islamic revolution in Iran.
In June 1980, an assassination attempt on Saddam’s close associate Tariq Aziz brought forth another crackdown. This time the Sadr dynasty bore the brunt of the regime’s fury. But with an unrelenting chorus from Teheran calling for the overthrow of Saddam’s apostate regime and the continual harassment of the Da’wa, then rightly regarded by much of the world as a terrorist group, Iraq was reluctantly pushed towards war.
Quite in contrast to the version currently afloat, Saddam was no manic dictator driven by uncontrollable impulses into gratuitous acts of warfare. The war against Iran, rather, was launched after much deliberation and with the explicit approval of other Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia. Indeed, a 1981 memorandum from the then U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, recently come to light, speaks of the Saudis being the conduit through which the U.S. tacitly signalled its consent for Iraq’s declaration of war. There was never any serious doubt that Iraq was waging war not merely for its own security, but for all the Arab states in the Gulf. As a recent expert assessment puts it: “The war was not Iraq’s private business… but rather a defence of the eastern flank of the Arab world against fundamentalist Iran. While the Gulf states were not asked to pay with rivers of blood for the protection of their own security, since Iraq did that on their behalf, they could not expect to take a ‘free ride’..”
For Saudi Arabia and the oil emirates of the Gulf, the U.S. forces are now the last remaining fortification against Iran. Strategic thinkers have in recent times begun to talk of an epic confrontation in the region that will pit Shi’a against Sunni, sparing no sovereign territory. Abdullah, the Hashemite ruler of Jordan, recently warned in his turn, that the Arab world now faces the imminent prospect of three civil wars – in Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied territories of Palestine.
Yet it is unclear that the shorthand description of the axis of estrangement, as a split between Sunni and Shi’a is really accurate. It serves the western audience’s need for easy comprehension, but is certainly untrue of the Palestinian territories. Hamas radicals and Fatah collaborationists, belong to the same religious denomination. It is also untrue of Lebanon, where the Maronite Christian leader, Michel Aoun, a former general in the national army and head of one of the contending governments in the country in the late-1980s, has quite decisively sworn his allegiance to Hezbollah, the party of the Lebanese Shi’a. Though best remembered for his opposition to growing Syrian influence in his country in the 1980s, Aoun’s record as a Lebanese patriot committed to harmony between all confessional groupings in the country’s complex political mosaic, is beyond question.
The confrontation that is brewing in the West Asian theatre rather, is all about the political formations and the regimes that have played along with the U.S.-Israeli plan to recast the political geography of the region and those that have opposed it. It is a fight against colonialism of a particularly unreconstructed variety. And it is a struggle to reaffirm the broad cross-border solidarities that have long been undermined by U.S.-Israeli stratagems and the collusion of the oil emirates. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was designed to extinguish for all time, the threat that these solidarities represented to Israel’s regional pre-eminence. Its final outcome may well be the opposite.
 “Reality based community” is a phrase taken from the journalist Ron Suskind’s account of an encounter with a senior official from the Bush administration (See “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, The New York Times, Magazine, October 17, 2004).
 “Bush, After Talk With Iraq Panel, Says He’s Open to Change, but ...”, The New York Times, November 14, 2006.
 James A. Baker, Lee H. Hamilton, et al, The Iraq Study Group report, Vintage Books, New York, December 2006. The essential points are in the executive summary between pages xiii and xviii.
 See this writer’s “Iraq: The Descent into Chaos, And a case for war reparations”, EPW, September 25, 2004; available at: http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2004&leaf=09&filename=7718&filetype=html.
 From the U.S. President’s website, at the following URL: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/06/20060617.html
 “The president’s last throw”, The Economist, January 13, 2007, pp 22-4, provides details of how Operation Together Forward rapidly degenerated into an unfettered round of sectarian bloodletting. Also see Frank Rich, “Dying to Save the GOP Congress”, The New York Times, October 29, 2006, for the following assessment of the security operations launched in June: “As we’ve learned from Operation Together Forward, when Iraqis do stand up, violence goes up. And when American and British troops stand down, murderous sectarian militias, some of them allied with that ‘unity’ government, fill the vacuum, taking over entire cities like Amara and Balad in broad daylight”.
 The document was published in full in The New York Times dated November 29, 2006, headlined “Text of U.S. Security Advisor’s Iraq memo”.
 Stephen Moss, “Was Saddam’s death dignified?”, The Guardian, January 2, 2007; available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1981195,00.html.
 The New York Times posted on its website a story which reported, early hours of January 3, as follows: “… one of the officials who attended the hanging, a prosecutor at the trial that condemned Mr. Hussein to death, said that one of two men he had seen holding a cellphone camera aloft to make a video of Mr. Hussein’s last moments — up to and past the point where he fell through the trapdoor — was Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Mr. Maliki’s national security adviser. Attempts to reach Mr. Rubaie were unsuccessful. The prosecutor, Munkith Al-Faroun, said the other man holding a cellphone above his head was also an official, but he could not recall his name”. These references were omitted in a later version posted on the website, but were retained in the print edition of the newspaper. See “Iraq to examine abusive conduct toward Hussein”, The New York Times, January 3, 2007, available at: http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=FB0913FA3C540C708CDDA80894DF404482 (link requires subscription). If another account provided by Munkith Al-Faroun, this time to the BBC, were to be considered, it would become virtually impossible to dispel the suspicion that shrouds Mowaffak Al-Rubaie. This eyewitness account records him saying as follows: “Fourteen people were present, … including me who was there for the prosecution and the judge, who represented the court… I don't know the names of the officials who attended the execution except Dr Mowaffak Al Rubaie - I'd seen him on television”. If Rubaie was the only person that Faroun recognised in the gathering, then it stands to reason that he could not have misidentified him as one among the two Iraqi government officials recording the event on video-enabled cellphone. (See: Mahdi Abdelhadi, “Witness tells of Saddam’s last moments”, available at this writing at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6257077.stm).
 “Iraq to examine abusive conduct toward Hussein”, The New York Times, January 3, 2007, available at: http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=FB0913FA3C540C708CDDA80894DF404482
 See: David Ignatius, “In Iraq’s Choice, a Chance for Unity”, The Washington Post, April 26, 2006, page A25.
 Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power, Kissinger in the Nixon White House, Summit Books, 1983, p 53.
 The New York Times, December 8, 2006, “Israeli Leader Rejects Link Between Iraq and Mideast Woes”.
 “Bush-Blair split over report’s key proposals, President rejects talks with Iran and Syria”, The Guardian, December 8, 2006.
 “Iran fury at Blair 'tirade of allegations'”, The Times, London, December 28, 2006; available at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,251-2520628,00.html.
 “If US leaves Iraq we will arm Sunni militias, Saudis say”, The Guardian, December 14, 2006.
 These reports were carried by a number of news channels, such as Al Jazeera. See: http://www.aljazeera.com/cgi-bin/conspiracy_theory/fullstory.asp?id=362
 Quoted in Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein, A Political Biography, Brassey’s, 1991, page 142.
 The path to war is retraced with admirable clarity in Karsh and Rautsi, op. cit., chapter 6.
 The “talking points” memo filed by Alexander Haig is marked “top secret” and reports a series of fruitful diplomatic engagements in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This document is available in facsimile at the website of the investigative journalist Robert Parry: www.consortiumnews.com. It is at the moment of writing, accessible through the archives of the website http://www.consortiumnews.com/archive/xfile5.html.
 Michael T. Klare in Andrew J. Bacevic and Efraim Inbar (editors), The Gulf War of 1991 Reconsidered, Frank Cass, 2003, p 14.