During his whirlwind stopover in Baghdad, last Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama has declared that Iraqis “must take responsibility for their country”. He predicted the next 18 months would be trying, as American troops start to leave a country still facing security threats and political problems. “They (the Iraqis) have got to make political accommodations” Mr Obama said. “They’re going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means.”
Now that President Obama and his aides have announced their plan for the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq by August 31, 2010, they must consider what the forces engaged against the coalition and the Iraqi government plan to do until that time. The problem is, that Iran and Syria, as well as al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups, can seriously affect Obama’s withdrawal ‘road map’. Moreover, will Riyadh and Tehran, Ankara and Damascus, go along with Washington’s new strategic ambitions?
In fact, any decent strategic analyst, looking into the Middle East future, must ask: “what if the other side won’t cooperate?” What about al-Qaeda and its Salafi-Wahabi support, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Quds force, Hezbollah from Lebanon and the intelligence services of Tehran and Damascus, will they ignore this rare opportunity to act?
According to Obama, by that magical date of August 31, 2010, Iraq’s own forces should then be able to control their county. But as any experienced military analysts will tell, to train the fledgling Iraqi security forces to fight a brutal sectarian counter-insurgency war in a mere 18 months from now, might at best be wishful thinking by an overoptimistic and inexperienced U.S. president. Based on historical examples, not too distant to memory, such a statement is either totally shortsighted or sheer ignorance on existing facts in this unpredictable region. Once President Obama’s “orderly withdrawal” starts in earnest, there will be hell to pay, all over Iraq and very rapidly spilling over it’s borders, engulfing much of this already explosive region.
A quick reminder of recent events clearly demonstrate how quickly inter-sectarian differences emerged, when U.S. forces began to pull out of Baghdad and into suburban bases in 2005. The dangerously created vacuum was immediately filled by al-Qaeda bombers, armed Shi’ite and Sunni militants, who fought each other viciously in a two-year brutal civil war. In a country seething with ancient animosities, it’s almost certain that politics will be attended by violence.
A major stumbling block will be the distribution of Iraq’s oil, half of which is in the Shiite South and the other in the Kurdish North. The Sunni minority, which ruled the country by force for decades, has no access to any of the two. An acceptable distribution of the national oil wealth seems almost phantasmagoric, based on the historical memories that both Kurds and Shiites have of the Sunni brutal oppression.
Once the U.S. troops leave, Iraq will be on the brink of full-blown civil war, under total order disintegration and bloodshed. The consequences will inevitably be, a massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis. Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have already petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. There is new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions, who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region.
Al-Qaeda forces, on the run after the U.S. “surge”, will quickly regroup, finding the Iraqi void a lucrative haven to spread their operations throughout the entire region. Inside Iraq, spiraling sectarian violence will quickly dissolve the fragile trust between Iraq’s elected leaders and strengthen the hand of hard-liners and militia commanders in every community. The result will be an all out sectarian civil war with outsiders helping each side in the mutual carnage.
Jihadists are already preparing their strategic lines into Iraq. Constantly crossing the Syrian border, they are backed by ideological and financial circles inside Saudi Arabia. The notorious Salafi- Wahabi combat groups have the highly dangerous ‘Sunni Triangle’ in sight for religious cleansing, as long as the “will of Allah” prevails. Widely known as the most brutal Islamic fundamentalists, their entire culture of killing, on which Salafi militants base their methods of combat, that is to fight all they consider infidels- primarily Shiites, but even secular Sunnis are not to be spared. Recent violent clashes in downtown Baghdad involving Iraqi soldiers, U.S. forces and Sunni ‘Arab Awakening Council’ terrorists, foreshadow challenges that lay ahead.
Thus any success of the highly dubious Obama plan, will first and foremost hinge on the capacity of his administration to stop the flow of jihadists from Syria and Saudi Arabia, a near ‘Mission Impossible’ as military experts soberly assess.
An even more complex prediction is about Iran’s plans for post-American withdrawal. Although many in Washington are ‘excited’ to report that “realism will prevail in Tehran” as soon as the Obama administration sits down with the mullahs, such a scenario, would be totally illusory, if not dangerously out of reality. Iran has deeply vested historic, economic and political interest in Iraq, especially in its strategic south. Tehran’s longtime ambition is to penetrate, influence and seize 60 percent of Iraq from Baghdad to Basra as American forces withdraw, and most certainly after their pull-out. They will use all the power elements at their disposal – special groups, the Mahdi Army, assassinations, and government infiltrators. Even a perfunctory glimpse at the map shows, that Iran’s strategic ambitions are a mere stone throw away, once the road is clear of U.S. and British forces in that region.
More acute danger lurks in Iraq’s Kurdish north. It is probably in Kirkuk where the disputes seem most intractable. At its simplest, this is an old-fashioned turf war. The Kurds want the city and its hinterlands to be folded into the northern province of Kurdistan. Turkomans, a distinct ethnic group sharing ancestry with modern Turks and Arabs, would prefer it to remain outside Kurdish hegemony, in the separate Tamim province. But all know that outside Kirkuk is one of Iraq’s largest oil fields and that is what makes Kirkuk such a highly dangerous flashpoint.
So far the Kurdish semi-autonomic region was virtually protected by U.S. troop presence. Once these leave, the Kurds no doubt will again strive towards full autonomy, if not a fully independent statehood. This is where both Ankara and Tehran will come in, to avert such a move, using force if needed. Will Washington remain passive and watch the Kurds butchered by both Turkish Sunni and Iranian Shiites?
The American withdrawal from Iraq, even if phased and gradual, will present a mammoth proportional logistical operation. Large sections of the long exit routes, especially those through the dangerous Basrah bottleneck, are highly susceptible to hostile fire. A safer exit route would therefore be through northern Kurdish controlled Iraq and Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said the United States has requested that Ankara be prepared to help it withdraw from war-torn Iraq. Indeed, Washington had made the request but did not provide details of its pullout plans. The sprawling Incirlik Air Base in remote southern Turkey already serves as the passageway for 70 percent of the air cargo bound for American troops in Iraq. By land, the Habur Gate – a dust-blown border checkpoint – is used to ship construction materials, food, fuel and other non-lethal items from Turkey into Iraq. The Eastern Mediterranean ports will render excellent loading point for heavy equipment. But Ankara might well ask Washington to pay a high price for its generosity. When matters will heat up in Kurdistan, the bill will be presented to Barack Obama to keep mum, as Turkish troops re-enter Iraq, apparently to chase PKK terrorists. The Jordanian port of Aqaba, accessible via the Iraq-Jordan land route could also become an option for U.S. withdrawal.
In February 2003, a month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, warned President Bush that he would be “solving one problem and creating five more” if he removed Saddam Hussein by force. Unfortunately, he failed to listen and George Walker Bush’s illusion for a democratic Iraq will quickly evaporate as soon as his successor, Barack Hussein Obama will give the order to start the fateful withdrawal.