By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 28, 2008; 1:36 PM
The new wave of violence sweeping Iraq is not just a powerful rejoinder to President Bush's insistence that the U.S. troop surge has been a success -- it's also a reminder of how the problems facing that troubled country are much more complex than he will acknowledge.
In the vision Bush puts forward, there are just two sides in Iraq: The good guys and the bad guys; our team and an enemy who, as he put it in his speech yesterday, "will try to fill the TV screens with violence." To Bush, the people of Iraq need our help to save them from terrorists who intend to overthrow Iraq's brave and unified government on their way to attacking America.
That the current battle in Basra is essentially between rival Shiite militias fighting for political power doesn't alter his narrative.
Bush yesterday said the Basra offensive shows Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "commitment to enforce the law in an even-handed manner" and demonstrates "the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge." (See yesterday's White House Watch.) The ultimate result, he said, would be that "terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society."
But, increasingly, it looks like the result of the bloodletting in Basra may be the U.S. more actively taking up arms in the messy, multi-sided civil war that the surge, rather than resolving, has apparently only postponed.Taking On a Bigger Role
The initial U.S. role in the Basra fighting -- providing air cover and embedded advisers -- appears to be expanding.
Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman write for The Washington Post: "U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in the vast Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, and military officials said Friday that U.S. aircraft bombed militant positions in the southern city of Basra, as the American role in a campaign against party-backed militias appeared to expand. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the Sadr City fighting, as U.S. troops took the lead. . . .
"The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. . . .
"As President Bush told an Ohio audience that Iraq was returning to 'normalcy,' administration officials in Washington held meetings to assess what appeared to be a rapidly deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country."And Taking Sides
And, despite Bush's framing yesterday, on the ground it's pretty clear the offensive is about something else.
Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "As gun battles raged in the southern port city of Basra, parts of Baghdad and neighboring provinces, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in effect declared war on Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, saying he'd fight the militia 'to the end' and never negotiate. . . .
"Three days into a U.S.-backed government offensive, however, the Mahdi Army retained control of key neighborhoods of the southern port city of Basra and was able to prevent Iraqi soldiers and police from penetrating its strongholds. . . .
"Sadrists and some analysts are portraying the offensive as a political move by the rival Islamic Supreme Council to liquidate Sadr's movement before provincial elections.
"A law covering provincial elections went into effect last week after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney strong-armed the presidency council into allowing it to pass. While the Islamic Supreme Council is more powerful than Sadr is in much of the country, Sadr is much more popular among poor Shiites. Provincial elections could undercut the Supreme Council's influence in the south, and many see the government offensive as a move to thwart Sadr's political ambitions."
Tina Susman writes in the Los Angeles Times that "a fourth day of ferocious rocket and mortar attacks in and around the U.S.-guarded Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government offices, underscored the anger among Shiite fighters who believe the United States and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are working to cripple Sadr's movement before local elections planned for this fall."
James Glanz and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "Although Mr. Bush praised the Iraqi government for leading the fighting, it also appeared that the Iraqi government was pursuing its own agenda, calling the battles a fight against 'criminal' elements but seeking to marginalize the Mahdi Army.
"The Americans share the Iraqi government's hostility toward what they call rogue elements of the Mahdi Army but will also be faced with the consequences if the battles among Shiite factions erupt into more widespread unrest.
"The violence underscored the fragile nature of the security improvements partly credited to the American troop increase that began last year. Officials have acknowledged that a cease-fire called by Mr. Sadr last August has contributed to the improvements."
I called attention yesterday to two Time magazine articles that today seem even more prescient and are worth mentioning again. Charles Crain noted how chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner (" Bush's Baghdad Mouthpiece") refused to say "whether the Americans would become involved more directly if the Iraqi government could not complete its Basra operation. 'I would say,' he said, 'that's a very hypothetical question at this time.'" But, Crain wrote: "It is also the question of the hour. If the violence continues to intensify and the Iraqi government cannot finish what it started then the U.S. must choose whether to throw its troops into the fight."
And Darrin Mortenson wrote: "If the U.S. decides to actively go after the Shi'ite forces in the south, it would mean reopening a southern front where American forces once fought some of the Iraq war's fiercest battles against Sadr but now have only a shadow presence. That would involve draining the concentration of surge troops around Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. It might even require more troop extensions or additional deployments to hold ground and maintain modest gains. Moving against the Shi'ite strongholds could then open opportunities for the Sunni fighters of al-Qaeda to strike Iraqi and U.S. targets in the Sunni triangle as the American heat turns south."Rhetoric and Reality
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The images from Baghdad and Basra bristled with explosions, burning buildings, angry street protests, rocket smoke wafting from the Green Zone. The words from Dayton were 'remarkable' and 'victory' and 'rebirth.'
"'Normalcy,' President Bush said, 'is returning back to Iraq.'
"The juxtaposition of image and sound crisply illustrated Bush's challenge in pleading for more patience from his own weary public for a war that has now surpassed five years and 4,000 American dead. . . .
"Meanwhile, Bush advisers in Washington held a series of meetings to assess what appeared to be a rapidly deteriorating situation in southern Iraq as three rival Shiite militias battled for political power. A decisive victory for Iraqi security forces could bolster Bush's position heading into congressional hearings on the war next month, they said, but they expressed nervousness that the operation would upset a fragile cease-fire with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has been a major factor in falling violence in recent months."
James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Thursday that the yearlong increased U.S. troop deployment in Iraq had allowed the country to 'restart political and economic life' and take on a greater role in its own reconstruction while building a modern democracy on 'the rubble of three decades of tyranny.'"
Oh really? "Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a telephone interview that although the examples of progress Bush cited were accurate, the new Iraqi laws the president cited either 'fall short or there are loopholes.'
"And, citing new fighting across the country as an 'unraveling of the security situation,' he said it was 'tough to talk about progress one day after 100 people were killed in the worst violence in months.'
"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a written statement that Bush had 'failed to give the American people a clear indication' that a plan for success was any closer now than in the last five years.
"'The president asserts that real progress has been made in Iraq, but if that were truly the case, then our troops would be coming home soon,' he said."
Bush today, in a joint press availability with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, continued to insist that the targets of the government offensive were "criminal elements." He even called it "a defining moment in the history of Iraq." And he said that although the Iraqis were in the lead, "the U.S. will of course provide them help if they ask for it, if they need it."Yesterday's Speech
Bush's lengthy speech yesterday failed to win him the headlines he likely was hoping for today. But it also escaped some much-needed journalistic scrutiny.
Here, for instance, Bush was rewriting history: "Tragically, the progress threatened to unravel in 2006. The new government Iraqis elected took months to form. In the meantime, a terrorist attack on a Shia shrine in Samarra drove sectarian tensions past the breaking point. Sunni extremists, including al Qaeda terrorists, and Shia extremists, some backed by Iran, slaughtered innocent Iraqis in brutal attacks and reprisal killings. And across the country, political and economic activity was set back.
"We took a hard look at the situation, and responded with the surge."
In fact, as Mark Seibel of McClatchy Newspapers wrote last January: "Blaming the start of sectarian violence in Iraq on the Golden Dome bombing . . . underestimates the depth of sectarian hatred in Iraq and overlooks the conflict's root causes." Thomas E. Ricks of The Washington Post wrote last March: "Experts say the attack did not begin a civil war but rather confirmed the ongoing deterioration and violence in Iraq -- conditions the White House and the generals had resisted recognizing."
Furthermore, it wasn't until almost a year after the shrine bombing -- and several months after the 2006 election -- that Bush announced the surge.
Bush also asserted yesterday that "this much is clear: The surge is doing what it was designed to do." But that's not even vaguely true compared to what he actually said the surge would accomplish when he announced it. (See, for instance, my April 26, 2007 column.)
Mocking his critics, Bush asked yesterday: "If America's strategic interests are not in Iraq -- the convergence point for the twin threats of al Qaeda and Iran, the nation Osama bin Laden's deputy has called 'the place for the greatest battle,' the country at the heart of the most volatile region on Earth -- then where are they?"
The obvious answer: Pakistan's rugged tribal area, where bin Laden and the real al-Qaeda are said to be actively re-establishing al-Qaeda training camps.
And Bush, whose prognostication skills have been almost uniformly poor when it comes to Iraq, spoke with great certainty about what would happen if U.S. forces came home:
"The reality is that retreating from Iraq would carry enormous strategic costs for the United States," he said. "It would incite chaos and killing, destroy the political gains the Iraqis have made, and abandon our friends to terrorists and death squads. It would endanger Iraq's oil resources and could serve as a severe disruption to the world's economy. It would increase the likelihood that al Qaeda would gain safe havens that they could use to attack us here at home. It would be a propaganda victory of colossal proportions for the global terrorist movement, which would gain new funds, and find new recruits, and conclude that the way to defeat America is to bleed us into submission. It would signal to Iran that we were not serious about confronting its efforts to impose its will on the region. It would signal to people across the Middle East that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word. A defeat in Iraq would have consequences far beyond that country -- and they would be felt by Americans here at home."
On each and every count, however, as critics like retired Gen. William Odom have long been arguing, it's quite possible that the exact opposite is true.Opinion Watch
Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "The wars in Iraq (the plural is no typo) are about to expand and possibly explode, so it might be useful to have some notion of what we're in for. . . .
"The fighting in Basra, which has spread to parts of Baghdad, is not a clash between good and evil or between a legitimate government and an outlaw insurgency. Rather, as Anthony Cordesman, military analyst for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes, it is 'a power struggle' between rival 'Shiite party mafias' for control of the oil-rich south and other Shiite sections of the country. . . .
"In other words, as with most things about Iraq, it's a more complex case than Bush makes it out to be."
Here's more from Cordesman, via the Tribune's Frank James: "Much of the current coverage of the fighting in the south assumes that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr militia are the 'spoilers,' or bad guys, and that the government forces are the legitimate side and bringing order. This can be a dangerous oversimplification."
The Financial Times editorial board writes: "The battle in southern Iraq between government forces and Basra militiamen not only demonstrates how fragile are the security gains of the US troops 'surge' of the past year. It could be the prelude to a deadly new phase in Iraq's multi-cornered civil war, sucking American (and residual British) forces into the struggle for power within the majority Shia community. . . .
"[T]he Shia-dominated administration of Nouri al-Maliki is a national government in name only. In practice it has ceased even pretending to pursue a communalist agenda, preferring the even narrower sectarian interest of the prime minister's faction of the Da'wa (Call) party and that of its allies in the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq led by Abdelaziz al-Hakim. The Iraqi national army, moreover, is really rebadged militia: in this instance mostly the Badr brigades of the Supreme Council.
"That is why the offensive is targeting Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army. The Hakims, backed by Tehran as well as Washington, want power in Baghdad, but underpinned by an oil-rich mini-state made up of the nine mainly Shia provinces of southern Iraq. . . .
"The Sadrists, the main winners of the 2005 elections, are the political expression of the majority of the majority -- the Shia poor -- and cannot be eliminated militarily. The US-led occupation forces will do nothing for their reputation or the future of Iraq by taking sides in an intra-Shia test of militia strength."
The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "US support for this assault is a dangerous venture. President Bush risks repeating the sort of missteps that have haunted America's occupation of Iraq for the past five years. . . .
"The picture he paints of events in Iraq suggests either that he is confused about the players and issues in Iraqi politics or that he fails to understand the impact of his policies. . . .
"When Bush talks of defeating the enemy in Iraq, he obscures a crucial reality: that at least three major power struggles are going on in Iraq, and America serves primarily as paymaster and muscle-bound enforcer for one side or the other."
The Globe editorial also notes: "An irony Bush may or may not comprehend is that he has put himself in the position of backing rivals of Sadr - Maliki's Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq - that are intimately entwined with the Iranian regime. They would benefit enormously by taking over completely the lucrative port and oil pipelines of Basra and crushing the Mahdi Army before next October's provincial elections."
The Concord (N.H.) Monitor editorial board writes: "Despite administration claims, the surge has not succeeded. Its primary purpose was to reduce the violence enough to buy Iraq's unpopular, cobbled together government time to find a way for rival factions to share power and oil revenue. That time was squandered, and now the violence is increasing. If, as many fear, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr lifts the ceasefire that has kept most of his 70,000 militia members on the sidelines, the fighting will escalate drastically. The Iraq people have 'been liberated,' in the words of the president. They are free to be kidnapped, shot or blown up at home, at work and at play.
"None of this squares with the version of reality being spun by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. Nothing they say about Iraq is believable. Both men continue to falsely link Saddam Hussein with the al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. Both warn of the danger posed by al-Qaida in Iraq, though the vast majority of those wielding arms have nothing to do with the terrorist group. Neither will admit that al-Qaida was not in Iraq before the American invasion. Both claim that the war in Iraq has made America and the world safer from terrorism, yet the opposite is true. . . .
"Nothing is likely to change between now and January 20 next year, when a new president takes office. The course that president takes will be dictated by events to come. But the next president must not stay the haphazard, endless course set by Bush and Cheney. And above all, unlike Bush and Cheney, the next president must tell the American people the truth."Poll Watch
The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center finds: "Bush's job approval rating has slipped to 28%, the lowest of his presidency."McCain's Critique?
Is Sen. John McCain getting a little fed up with some of Bush's simplistic views?
A reader who wishes to remain anonymous points out that in his speech on Wednesday, McCain spoke about his own view of war: "The lives of a nation's finest patriots are sacrificed. Innocent people suffer and die. Commerce is disrupted; economies are damaged; strategic interests shielded by years of patient statecraft are endangered as the exigencies of war and diplomacy conflict. Not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war." (My italics.)
This came only a few days after Bush, in a videoconference with U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, said that he envied them. Tabassum Zakaria of Reuters quoted Bush as saying: "I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger."
Notes my reader: "So, within weeks of each other, we have the GOP president romanticizing war and the GOP candidate calling people who romanticize war fools or frauds. Deliberate or not, the implication cannot be easily explained away. It seems that McCain has just publicly called Bush a fool/fraud."
And it's not like McCain's line was an accident, either. As Sam Stein reported for the Huffington Post, much of that portion McCain's speech was a rehash from an October 2001 op-ed he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. But not the "fool" line. That was a fresh addition.Playing Politics at Guantanamo?
Carol J. Williams writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The lawyer for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, on Thursday accused U.S. officials of trying to orchestrate war-crimes convictions for election-year political gain.
"In his motion for dismissal of the case against Hamdan, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer accused Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann -- legal advisor to the White House official overseeing terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- of exercising 'unlawful command influence' over both the prosecution and defense. Lawyers participating in the tribunals are members of the U.S. military, and all are subordinate in rank to Hartmann. . . .
"In his 97-page motion, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer cited what he said were inappropriate comments and actions by Hartmann and political appointees in the Guantanamo process -- including its top official, Susan J. Crawford, the convening authority. . . .
"In the last six years, only one case against a detainee at Guantanamo Bay has reached its conclusion. Crawford, who served as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was Defense secretary, in early 2007 facilitated the plea bargain that freed Australian David Hicks.
"The move was seen by many as a favor by the Bush administration to Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whose failure to free Hicks was hampering his reelection battle -- which he eventually lost."
Williams also has a moving account of life at Guantanamo.Torture Tapes Watch
Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "When officers from the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting harsh interrogations in 2005, they may have believed they were freeing the government and themselves from potentially serious legal trouble.
"But nearly four months after the disclosure that the tapes were destroyed, the list of legal entanglements for the C.I.A., the Defense Department and other agencies is only growing longer. In addition to criminal and Congressional investigations of the tapes' destruction, the government is fighting off challenges in several major terrorism cases and a raft of prisoners' legal claims that it may have destroyed evidence."Gov. Siegelman Freed
Adam Nossiter writes in the New York Times: "Donald Siegelman, former governor of Alabama, was ordered released from prison on Thursday by a federal appeals court, pending his appeal of a bribery conviction that Democrats say resulted from a politically driven prosecution.
"In its order, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, said Mr. Siegelman had raised 'substantial questions' in his appeal of the case and could be released on bond. . . .
"Mr. Siegelman's case has been cited by Democrats here and in Washington as Exhibit A in their contention that politics has influenced decisions by the Justice Department, which prosecuted the former governor. In addition, Mr. Siegelman's conviction in June 2006 here sharply polarized the political climate in this state, and suggestions by his supporters and others that the former Bush White House political director, Karl Rove, may have been involved have only increased the tensions."Brazilian Tells Off Bush
AFP reports: "Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Thursday he told US President George W. Bush to fix his country's economic problems before they spill over and harm other economies.
"'Son, here's the problem,' Lula said he told Bush in a telephone call. 'We've had 26 years with no growth. And now that we're growing, you want to complicate things? Fix your own crisis!'
"In a speech to Mexican and Brazilian businessmen in Brazil's easternmost city, Lula said he placed the call to Bush to tell him what he felt about the current US economic crisis, but did not say when the call took place."The Pitch
Barry Svrluga writes in The Washington Post: "With President Bush slated to open Nationals Park by throwing the ceremonial first pitch Sunday night, new Washington Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca has assumed all spring that he would be the man to receive it.
"But Thursday morning, on the last day of spring training, General Manager Jim Bowden informed Lo Duca that the honor instead will go to Manager Manny Acta.
"The choice has symbolic implications. Lo Duca was one of the primary figures in the report by former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Bush, in turn, is an avid baseball fan and former owner of the Texas Rangers who has publicly denounced the use of steroids, both in professional sports and by America's youth."Cartoon Watch