Iraqi Election:
Juggling 10 Balls in the Air

 COMMENT:  The story below is a good description of the confusion of forces with which the Administration has to deal.  It is clear to me that leaving Iraq in the midst of this witches' brew of politics before stability is accomplished lays the rest of the world open to terrible repercussions.  See also Truth on the Ground on this issue.  It is not true that stability cannot be accomplished, but it would go a lot better if our Administration understood the Biblical route to stability.     E. Fox

The Iraqi Election's Effects, from Washington to Tehran
Note: The Geopolitical Intelligence Report will resume Jan. 3.


By George Friedman

Let's begin with two facts. First, the Iraqi elections were held Dec. 15. That is the important news: They were held. The Sunni population, along with Shia and Kurds, participated. Second, U.S. President George W. Bush did not break below 37 percent popularity. In fact, he bounced to about 47 percent.

The first fact indicates that the Iraqi situation did not collapse into utter chaos. The second fact indicates that the Bush presidency did not collapse into impotence. These two facts are obviously connected. They do not end the story by any means, but they do open a new chapter.

In September and October, as Bush sank below 40 percent in the polls, we argued that he was reaching a critical point: As presidents fall below about 35-37 percent, they start losing their core constituency -- an event from which recovery is extremely difficult. Bush's presidency was at its red line. We also argued that the crisis' cause was not just Hurricane Katrina -- although it certainly hurt -- but also that Bush couldn't seem to pull the situation together in Iraq. But even though Bush's political base shuddered, it did not break. And that bought him time to see Iraq develop a sense of order with the Dec. 15 election.

Looked at in reverse, if Bush had been flattened completely by plummeting popularity figures, pulling things together Dec. 15 would have been impossible. The Sunnis were looking to Washington to guarantee their interests as they entered the political process. If Bush had collapsed completely, those guarantees would have been of little value, and the Sunnis might well have pursued a different course. However, Bush did not collapse, and the Sunnis entered the political process. Thus the two political processes became intimately bound up together.

The Baathist and traditional Sunni leadership's decision to participate in the elections was conditioned by two considerations. First, and most important, had they not participated they would have been completely excluded from the regime the Shia and Kurds were crafting. The Sunnis realized the insurrection was not spreading beyond their own region. They could sustain their resistance, but the political process was under way in the rest of Iraq -- the larger part of Iraq -- and they would be left with chaos in their own region, isolation from the rest of the country and no political power. Moreover, if they succeeded in driving out the Americans, they would have been left to the tender mercies of their historical enemies. So, if they failed to drive out the Americans, they would be in chaotic isolation; if they did drive out the Americans, they would face much harsher treatment at the hands of the Shia. The revelation of conditions in Shiite prisons for Sunnis just before the elections helped drive that point home neatly.

Secondly, the native Sunni leadership was not happy with the inroads foreign jihadists were making into the Sunni community. The Baathists are secular, and the rest of the Sunni community is far from Wahhabi jihadists. That the jihadists were effective in fighting the Americans did not necessarily thrill the Sunni leadership, who did not want to see their sons come under the radicals' influence. Jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- useful while the Sunnis were trying to force a military solution to their situation -- posed an increasing danger to the traditional leadership. As foreigners and jihadists, al-Zarqawi and his followers in all likelihood could not supplant the local leadership. Nevertheless, they posed a challenge that would only increase as the insurrection continued. Also, the Iraqi Sunnis were not exactly thrilled about Sunnis regularly dying at the hands of jihadists -- whether as collateral damage or due to "collaboration." In the Sunni mind there is a difference between killing Americans (resistance) and killing Sunnis (terrorism). The jihadists were a useful tool, but only when they could be controlled.

For the United States, splitting the Sunnis between the jihadist and Baathist/traditional faction had been a fundamental strategy. Following the miscalculations of 2003, the first U.S. strategy had been to play the Shia against the Sunnis in order to contain the insurrection in the Sunni region. That having succeeded, the United States now wanted to split the Sunnis among themselves, and especially isolate the al-Zarqawi faction.

U.S. efforts were much more sophisticated than just pitting Sunni nationalists against jihadists. Washington also worked to exploit internal Sunni nationalist differences between Baathists and Islamists, between different tribes, within tribes and even within other groups such as the religious scholarly body. In other words, it was the ability of the Bush administration to take advantage of multiple fault lines that led to the split within the Sunnis -- which, in turn, allowed the constitution to pass in the Oct. 15 referendum and forced most Sunnis to take part in the Dec. 15 polls.

American thinking was that if the native Sunnis could be brought (forced) into the political process, the foreign jihadists -- alien to Iraq -- would have to either start a civil war among the Sunnis that they couldn't win, or reduce the violence to a level which the Sunnis could tolerate in their political mode. There was no expectation that the violence would simply end -- only that in due course it would subside.

>From the Sunnis' standpoint, the election represented a turning point, but not an irreversible one. Put differently, the Sunnis got to where they were by waging an insurrection and appearing willing to wage it indefinitely. Hated by the Shia and Kurds for their role in Saddam Hussein's regime, the Sunnis understood that, other things being equal, it was their turn to be oppressed and the United States wouldn't lift a finger to help them.

Therefore, launching an insurrection created a situation in which they would be neither simply ignored nor reduced to victim status. The insurrection was the Sunnis' bargaining chip. Indeed, the jihadists, with their willingness to go to any length to fight the Americans -- and Shia -- were the Sunnis' ultimate weapon. No one could control them but the Sunnis -- and that only delicately. Using the insurgency and the jihadists, the Sunnis maneuvered the Americans into a position in which their relationship with the Shia and Kurds would not provide a sufficient base for managing Iraq. They created a situation in which the Americans needed the Sunnis in order to pacify Iraq -- and therefore were willing to protect Sunni interests against the Shia.

Truth be known, the Americans were not all that unhappy being forced into this position. The Americans had developed a complex dependency on the Shia in the fall of 2003 and urgently wanted Shiite acquiescence. Had the Shia risen, the U.S. position would have been untenable. Needing Shiite support, Washington had effectively guaranteed the Shia control of Iraq -- a price it was not happy to pay. The American concern was not the Shia per se, but their Iranian allies.

Washington's fear was that containment of the Sunni uprising would create an Iranian satellite in Iraq. That would have had massive repercussions throughout the region -- particularly for Saudi Arabia, which fears growing Iranian power. Now, it should be remembered that the Iraqi Arab Shia are not identical to Iranian Shia. There are serious tensions between the two groups, which are ethnically, theologically, culturally and linguistically distinct. So a Shiite government in Iraq is not simply an Iranian satellite. However, it could well be an Iranian ally, and that was not the outcome the United States wanted.

Of course, the United States was also concerned about Shiite ambitions to transform Iraq from a secular state to an Islamic one -- the last thing Washington needed was another Iran. So the United States needed to almost double-cross the Shia without actually doing so -- and cooperating with the Sunnis gave Washington the opportunity to do just that.

Thus, as much as the United States -- and the Bush presidency -- was hurt by the Sunni insurrection, the insurgency carried with it a silver lining. The United States demonstrably had to contain the Sunnis, and the only option it had was political: championing Sunni interests against the Shia. The most glaring example of this was Bush phoning the leader of Iraq's Islamist Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and urging him to make concessions to Sunni demands in order to break the deadlock in the constitutional negotiations. Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite member of the constitutional committee, said Aug. 26 that Bush asked Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to accept compromises that deal with purging the Baath party from public life. While the United States could not be accused of simply double-crossing the Shia, it could use the Sunnis' demands as a platform from which to try to reshape the new regime so that it had a built-in degree of complexity that would prevent outright Shiite control. That, in turn, would prevent outright Iranian domination.

The Sunnis still see the insurgency as their only bargaining chip. They want to demonstrate that they can moderate it, but they do not -- at this point -- want it to fade. The more al-Zarqawi does, the greater the U.S. dependency on the Sunnis. They don't want al-Zarqawi to get out of control -- as stated, he could threaten their own interests -- but they don't quite want him to go away. The Sunnis will walk a fine line until they reach an acceptable political settlement with the Shia that can be guaranteed in some way.

So, the Shia become the dominant power in Iraqi politics. The Kurdish position is protected. The Sunnis get their piece of the government, and al-Zarqawi loses his base of operations as Sunni confidence rises. There is, however one huge loser in this scenario: Iran. Iran should be going wild over what is happening in Iraq, and indeed it is. We must never forget Iran's war with Iraq and the trauma it created in Iran. Iran is obsessed with the ideal of a neutral or pro-Iranian Iraq. The U.S. maneuverings with former Baathists terrify the Iranians. They have minimal confidence in the political cleverness of Iraqi Shia, given the historical record. A coalition of Americans and Baathists is Tehran's worst nightmare. Depending on Iraqi Shia to protect their interests in the face of this coalition -- interests the Shia in Iraq don't always share -- is not something they can do.

It is therefore not an accident that, as their primary national security interests have been torn to shreds, the Iranians have tried to raise the ante. In ranting about the Jews and the Holocaust and moving Israel to Alaska, the Iranians are trying to play the North Korea game. The North Koreans maximize their leverage by appearing to be nearly a nuclear power and more than a little nuts. This brings the U.S. -- and a bunch of other nations -- to the table to negotiate with them and give them money or grain or other little gifts.

The Iranians have deliberately made it clear that they are going to get nuclear weapons and have hinted that they might already have them. Then, Iran's president started playing the role of Kim Jong Il, making it clear that he is crazy enough to use nuclear weapons.

One of the unremarkable constants in the Middle East of late is how hands-off a position the Israelis have been taking on everything. Threatening not-so-subtly to take action against Israel is old hat, but doing so against the background of increasingly touchy nuclear negotiations is another issue entirely. When the Iranian president began saying that Israel should be wiped off the map -- or at least moved to Alaska -- the Israelis obediently perked up and began dusting off battle plans to neutralize (read: nuke) Iran, with March bandied about as a realistic timeframe.

There are many things that could complicate U.S. goals in the Middle East, but none would do so more efficiently than Israeli missiles striking Iran. Since the last thing the United States needs is an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, and the second-to-last thing the United States wants is a new war in Iran, the Iranians are betting that the Americans will try to placate them as Washington does with North Korea.

What the Iranians want, of course, are guarantees on future Iraqi policy. They also want to make certain that their Baathist enemies are never again in a position to return to power. And they are expecting the United States to guarantee all these things. Of course the Sunnis are expecting the United States to guarantee their interests. The Kurds have always relied on the United States. And the Israelis want to make sure that the Iranian nuclear threat is not left to them to handle. Each has its own threat. The Sunnis can crank up the insurgency. The Shia can invite in more Iranians. The Kurds can try to instigate an uprising in Turkey (or Iraq, Iran or Syria). The Iranians can threaten Israel with nuclear weapons, and the Israelis can threaten a preemptive strike.

Washington does not want any of these things. That means the United States must juggle a series of nearly incompatible interests to get a situation where it can draw down its troops. On the other hand, the Shia need the Americans to protect them from the Sunnis and the Iranians. The Sunnis need the Americans to protect them from the Shia. The Kurds need the Americans to protect them from the Turks (and the Sunnis). The Iranians need the Americans to protect them from the Israelis. And the Israelis generally need the Americans.

So, there is enough symmetry in the situation that the Bush administration might just be able to pull it off. What "it" consists of is less clear and less important than the balancing act that precedes it. It is in that balancing act that the United States reduces its forces, pushes al-Zarqawi to the wall, plays Iraqi and Iranian Shia against each other and gives the Iranians enough to keep them from going nuclear before Washington is ready to deal with the issue on its terms. It is dizzying, but that's what happens when war plans don't work out on the field the way they did in the computer -- which is usually. The administration has actually crafted something resembling a solution, or a solution has presented itself. Between that and polls that are a bit above awful, there is a chance the situation could work out in the administration's favor.

However, as all of this suggests, a final agreement is not only nowhere in sight, but not even in mind. Any conclusive agreement that would be acceptable to one group would be unacceptable to at least one other. In fact, the only thing that all of the domestic players agree on is that Washington has a role to play as the ultimate guarantor of any new government. The United States has no problem with this save one condition: that Washington is not responsible for day-to-day security. That in turn requires one item: a functional, united Iraqi army. That too has a precondition: a united army must include the Sunnis. Again, there is a follow on: the only Sunnis with military expertise are the Baathists.

Of all the possible Iraqi arrangements, the one that terrifies Iran is the one that is actually happening: a political agreement, with the support of all the local players, that involves a united, functional military complete with unrepentant Baathist elements. Memories of the 1980-1988 war are suddenly running a lot closer to the surface. Iran's biggest problem in challenging this scenario is that it does not have an effective lever. All of the Iraqi power brokers have signed on for their own reasons, and no one -- even the Iraqi Shia leadership -- believes Tehran would offer a better deal.

Which means that the only power Tehran can talk to is the one player that has no interest in talking to it if Iraq is about to be settled: the United States.

Since Washington is trying to avoid an Israeli preemptive strike against Tehran, the United States suddenly has an interest in making Israel feel better. To do that, it needs to get the Iranians under control. To do that, it needs to talk to the Iranians. And now we have Iran with something the United States wants (an Israel that is not about to go ballistic) and the United States with something Iran wants (an Iraq that Iran can tolerate).

The United States is not going to hand Iraq over to Iran, but should Tehran choose to complicate matters, neither is the United States going to be able to withdraw its forces.

Within that imbroglio there is room for compromise: have the United States -- via a permanent occupation -- guarantee Iraqi neutrality. An Iraq with 165,000 U.S. troops is in neither Iran's nor the United States' interest, but an Iraq with 40,000 troops at bases in the western Iraqi desert is. It is enough of a force to prevent unsavory governments from arising, but not enough to make Iran fear that Tehran could be flying the Stars and Stripes after a hectic weekend.

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