Saturday, April 08, 2006

ERIC SCHMITT AND EDWARD WONG of the New York Times write:

An internal staff report by the United States Embassy and military command in Baghdad provides a sobering province-by-province snapshot of Iraq's political, economic and security situation, rating the overall stability of 6 of the 18 provinces "serious" and one "critical. The report is a counterpoint to some recent upbeat public statements by top American politicians and military officials.

In 10 pages of briefing slides, the report, titled "Provincial Stability Assessment," underscores the shift in the nature of the Iraq war three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Warnings of sectarian and ethnic frictions are raised in many regions, even in those provinces generally described as nonviolent by American officials.

There are also alerts about the growing power of Iranian-backed religious Shiite parties, several of which the United States helped put into power, and rival militias in the south. The authors also point to the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the north as a major concern, with the two ethnicities vying for power in Mosul, where violence is rampant, and Kirkuk, whose oil fields are critical for jump-starting economic growth in Iraq.

The patterns of discord mapped by the report confirm that ethnic and religious schisms have become entrenched across much of the country, even as monthly American fatalities have fallen. Those indications, taken with recent reports of mass migrations from mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, show that Iraq is undergoing a de facto partitioning along ethnic and sectarian lines, with clashes -- sometimes political, sometimes violent -- taking place in those mixed areas where different groups meet.

Jonathan Finer reports in the Washington Post on the growing power of Shiite militias:

Shiite Muslim militias pose the greatest threat to security in many parts of Iraq, having killed more people in recent months than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, and will likely present the most daunting and critical challenge for Iraq's new government, U.S. military and diplomatic officials say.

Assassinations, many carried out by Shiite gunmen against Sunni Arabs in Baghdad and elsewhere, accounted for more than four times as many deaths in March as bombings and other mass-casualty attacks, according to military data. And most officials agree that only a small percentage of shooting deaths are ever reported.
Militias last emerged as a top U.S. concern in 2004, when the American and Iraqi armies spent months putting down violent uprisings by the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Baghdad, Najaf and other cities. But the problem is far thornier now, U.S. officials say, because the militias have added thousands of foot soldiers and gained new political stature.

Two years ago, the Iraqi government was largely under American control and led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Iraq's next parliament will be dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a religious party that oversees a militia called the Badr Organization, and by followers of Sadr. Together the two groups claim nearly a quarter of the legislature's 275 seats and will likely hold several cabinet ministries.

"It's a far more serious problem now than it was then because of who is in power," said a U.S. official who worked on the militia issue with the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council two years ago and spoke on the condition that he not be named. "Until there's a commitment on the part of the government, there will be no solution."

Shiite militiamen are believed to number in the tens of thousands. Maj. Gen Rick Lynch, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said in a recent interview that the Mahdi Army -- formed by Sadr from the long-oppressed Shiite underclass in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion -- was believed to have about 10,000 members. The Badr Organization, created in Iran in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein's rule, has roughly 5,000, he said.

Other estimates for the groups, both accused by the United States of receiving backing from Iran, range far higher.

So, to sum up: Iraq is in danger of Balkanization along ethnic lines; rival Shiite militias are growing in power; and next-door, overwhelmingly Shiite Iran is the big winner.

Now, having read these two articles, we come to Seymour Hersh's new piece in The New Yorker about Iran's plans for becoming a nuclear power and the Bush administration's plans for making Iran the next war zone:

The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.

The disastrous Iraq invasion is repeating itself; and what is so astonishingly difficult to comprehend is that Pres. Bush and other top officials are engaging in the same pattern of deception and using the same set of ground rules and assumptions as they did before the Iraq war. And no one is questioning these assumptions. Maybe that's because the people in Congress with whom Bush is sharing his plans are the same ones who were gung-ho to invade Iraq:

In recent weeks, the President has quietly initiated a series of talks on plans for Iran with a few key senators and members of Congress, including at least one Democrat. A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, who did not take part in the meetings but has discussed their content with his colleagues, told me that there had been "no formal briefings," because "they’re reluctant to brief the minority. They're doing the Senate, somewhat selectively."

The House member said that no one in the meetings "is really objecting" to the talk of war. "The people they're briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough?" (Iran is building facilities underground.) "There's no pressure from Congress" not to take military action, the House member added. "The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it."

The parallels are frightening. It's like Iraq never happened for these guys, and all the catastrophic pre-Iraq invasion thinking is recurring:
  • Iran is an oil-rich country and the Bush administration wants to make sure that any Iranian government is friendly to U.S. economic interests.
  • "There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush's ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change."
  • "One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that 'a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.' "
  • Pres. Bush's mindset on Iran is driven by a "messianic vision."
  • Warnings from cooler heads in the government that airstrikes on Iran could provoke waves of terrorist attacks and increase anti-American feeling among Muslims all over the world are ignored or dismissed.
  • U.S. claims of working toward a "diplomatic solution" are a sham, because the Bush administration's underlying assumption is that nothing Iran's leaders say can be trusted. One official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) told Hersh, "[T]here's nothing the Iranians could do that would result in a positive outcome. American diplomacy does not allow for it. Even if they announce a stoppage of enrichment, nobody will believe them. It's a dead end." Another source told Hersh that the Bush administration's dismissive attitude toward the I.A.E.A. makes war inevitable: "He said, 'If you don't believe that the I.A.E.A. can establish an inspection system -- if you don't trust them -- you can only bomb.' "

Of course, all of this only makes it less likely that Iran will want to give up its nuclear ambitions:

A senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror [told Hersh], "This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war," he said. The danger, he said, was that "it also reinforces the belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have a nuclear capability."

Hersh quotes the same source later in the article:

"The whole internal debate is on which way to go" -- in terms of stopping the Iranian program. It is possible, the adviser said, that Iran will unilaterally renounce its nuclear plans -- and forestall the American action. "God may smile on us, but I don't think so. The bottom line is that Iran cannot become a nuclear-weapons state. The problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the U.S. Something bad is going to happen."

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