March 16, 2007

Making sense of a complex war

This article appeared as feature story in's special report

Making sense of a complex war
The removal of Saddam has evolved into the problem of Iran

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst
MSNBC- March 16, 2007

It has been four years since the American-led invasion of Iraq and the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. It was a well-executed military campaign – taking Baghdad in less than three weeks.

However, the notion of a quick victory followed by a quick withdrawal did not come to fruition. The two main reasons are the insistence by some in the U.S. government that we try to create a representative government in Iraq, while at the same time disbanding the Iraq army, the primary security organization in the country. Those two factors forced the United States to begin an occupation to secure the country – an occupation its forces were unprepared to conduct. While there were enough American troops to topple the regime, that number was far short of the number needed for an occupation of Iraq.

The occupation and insurgency
Sunnis, who now found themselves out of power and out of favor after decades of dominance, including thousands of now unemployed career soldiers, coalesced into a viable insurgency. Instability in Baghdad and the now-infamous “Sunni Triangle” created an opportunity too lucrative for al-Qaeda to ignore. Still reeling from its defeat in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda turned its focus toward battling the Americans in Iraq. It infiltrated Islamic fighters, mostly via Syria, into the Sunni-dominated Euphrates Valley.

After several years of operations against American troops, it became apparent to al-Qaeda leaders that they could not win the battle militarily. Faced with increasingly effective American attacks in the Euphrates valley, they adopted the strategy of starting a civil war along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni Arabs against Shia Arabs.

That civil war would bring the Shia into the fight and force American troops to interpose themselves between the combatants, relieving some of the pressure on al-Qaeda. Up until this point, the Shia had exercised remarkable restraint in the face of Sunni provocations.

Al-Qaeda succeeded and civil war was ignited in February 2006 when insurgent group al-Zarqawi destroyed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, the fourth holiest site in Shia Islam. As the Shia began attacks on the Sunnis and began “ethnic cleansing” operations in Baghdad, Iran sensed an opportunity. Iran’s elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, began training, funding and equipping the Shia militias, primarily the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In addition to attacking the Sunnis, the Shia militias also began attacks on U.S. troops.

The civil war
Now we are faced with a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shia, waged mostly in the Baghdad area. At the same time, the Islamic insurgency continues in the Sunni Triangle.

According to U.S. military officials, the primary problem is the sectarian violence, the civil war. The butchery of the two sects in fighting each other surprises even the most battle-hardened. Attacks on marketplaces, houses of worship, religious observances, and elementary schools underscore the age-old hatred between these two groups. It is difficult to imagine a peaceful resolution any time soon.

In an attempt to reduce the level of violence in the city and to maintain pressure on al-Qaeda and the Sunnis, the United States is deploying over 20,000 additional American troops - the “surge.” In Baghdad, the initial operation in the surge is to place American troops in those areas where most of the sectarian violence has occurred. This is a noble idea – to stop the killing – but it does not address the root issues.

It would appear that in the face of the surge operation, the Shia have decided to reduce their attacks on the Sunnis and the Americans. The key militia leaders have sought refuge in Iran or in the southern Shia cities in Iraq. The rank and file fighters have hidden their weapons and blended in to the community. They will remain that way until the Americans are gone, and only until they are gone. Their hatred and desire for revenge continues.

Without an effective central government and a viable Iraqi security force, the civil war will have to be fought to its conclusion.

For now, American forces are focusing on the Sunni insurgents. The Sunnis need the civil war to resume, taking the pressure off them and continuing the chaos that will cause the American public to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Attempts to provoke the Shia will likely continue and even increase.

The insurgents understand full well that their path to victory is via public opinion in the United States, not the battlefields of Iraq. A mandate by the U.S. Congress specifying a date for the withdrawal of American forces would be that victory - lay low and wait out the Americans.

The emerging long term issue: Iran
The situation goes beyond the civil war in Iraq.

With Iranian and American involvement, the war in Iraq has become a struggle – some label it a “proxy war” - between Tehran and Washington.

The victor will emerge as the key power broker in the region. There is more than Iraq at stake for Washington - American influence among the oil-rich Gulf Arab states. None of these states is eager to see non-Arab, Shia Iran dominate the area, especially given its recent aggressive militarization efforts – missile tests, nuclear research, provocations of the West.

As long as the United States is committed to the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, it must consider Iran in its strategic planning. What started out as the removal of Saddam Hussein is now about the containment of Iran.