Window of Opportunity in Iraq

29 December 2004

Window of Opportunity in Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

As the Bush administration often says, “failure is not an option” in Iraq. It is an accomplished fact. The initial US goals in invading the country are now completely unattainable, and the remaining uncertainties are mostly to do with the timing of the American pull-out and the extent of US humiliation. But is it possible that the Bush administration has understood this, and is planning to declare a victory and leave within the next six months?

A window of opportunity is about to open for an early American withdrawal from Iraq. It would involve a handover to an elected Iraqi government that will refuse to serve any of Washington’s aims in the region, but will not insist on publicly humiliating the Bush administration on the way out. Will they have the wit to take the exit?

President Bush continues to call all the anti-American resistance forces in Iraq “terrorists”, thus implying that a withdrawal from Iraq would somehow mean a defeat in his “war on terror,” but he is also starting to shift the blame for the mess there to the Iraqis themselves. “The American people are taking a look at Iraq and wondering whether the Iraqis are eventually going to be able to fight off these bombers and killers,” he said last week — as if Iraqis were proving unworthy of the efforts that Americans have made to help them.

The window of opportunity is the election of 30 January. The winner, barring a last-minute cancellation or massive fraud, will be the United Iraqi Alliance, a candidates’ list sponsored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that includes all the strongest Shia parties and groups. Since 60 percent of Iraq’s people are Shia Arabs and many of the 15-20 percent Sunni Arab minority will not vote, this alliance will almost certainly win a majority in the 275-member national assembly and choose the new government.

The biggest members of the alliance are the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party, Shia revolutionary groups that sat out Saddam’s rule in exile in Iran. There’s also the Iraqi National Congress, a secular Shia party founded by former Pentagon favourite Ahmad Chalabi, who has now broken decisively with Washington, and the powerful Shammar tribal confederacy, which includes both Shias and Sunnis.

Even Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical young Shia cleric whose militia twice rose in revolt against the US occupation this year and withstood lengthy sieges in Najaf and Karbala, has representatives on the United Iraqi Alliance’s candidate list. And on one issue, all the members of Sistani’s list agree. They all insist that the US must withdraw its forces from Iraq immediately.

In fact, the only dissenting groups in the new national assembly will probably be the Kurdish parties and the list headed by the current US-appointed prime minister, Iyad Allawi. Any Arab Iraqi politician who hopes for a political future knows that it will depend on what position he took in the closing phase of the US occupation of Iraq.

You could see this coming right from the start. The first US proconsul in Iraq, General Jay Garner, was fired after a month in the job because he wanted to hold early elections — elections that Washington rightly feared would be won by Iraqi politicians who would demand a prompt US withdrawal. There was then a direct confrontation between Garner’s successor, Paul Bremer, and Sistani last January over the latter’s demand for early elections.

Washington persuaded Sistani to let the United Nations decide if Iraq was “ready” for elections. (It had to compromise, as Sistani flooded the streets of Shia cities with non-violent demonstrators). But the US then exerted frantic pressure on the UN to say that Iraq wasn’t ready, and UN representative XY shamefully complied. Sistani had to settle for the promise of elections this January.

The trick gave the US another ten months to come up with some politicians who could (a) win and (b) ask the US to stay. At the least, it postponed an Iraqi electoral disaster past the US presidential election in November. But ten months have passed, and Washington has not found supporters who could win the election. As the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in September: “It is highly likely that the single unifying theme espoused by Iraq’s politicians will be to invite the US to leave Iraq once there is an elected Iraqi government in place.”

The US cannot now cancel or postpone this election without facing a massive Shia uprising, and although the Bush administration didn’t plan this — it hasn’t had any strategic plan since its original hyper-optimistic assumptions collapsed in mid-2003 — it does create an opportunity. When a Shia-run elected Iraqi government tells the US to leave Iraq in March or April, just congratulate them on their democratic choice and go.

The administration would have to abandon the fourteen “enduring bases” now under construction in Iraq and its dreams of strategic dominance in the Gulf, but those things are already lost in practice. It could claim a kind of theoretical success for its democratic project even if the new Iraq ends up hostile to the US and closely linked to Iran. Above all, it would get out of what threatens to turn into a new Vietnam with its credibility in the world greatly enhanced.

It probably won’t happen, in which case things will go from bad to worse. But it could.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“President…help them”; and “In fact…Iraq”)