Youssef M. Ibrahim: Iraq's phase II: Deadlier than ever
Iraq entered a deadlier and murkier second phase of fighting and bloodshed this past week. This is certain to deepen the American quagmire, threaten the longevity of Prime Minister Eyad Allawi's government and, unfortunately for Iraqis, usher in a new phase of internecine killing via suicide and car bombings, such as the hideous attacks in Mosul and Baghdad against Christian worshippers.
By far the most ominous new development could be a widening of the conflict that draws Iran into it. Allawi has officially named his giant neighbour, Iran, as trouble-maker-in-chief last week, accusing it of standing behind the rebellious cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and the fighting that left more than 300 dead in the holy city of Najaf.
This is a serious charge as grievous damage was done to innocent people, their commerce, their homes and some of the holiest Shiite sites there.
From Iran's perspective, there is little question what happens in Najaf is its business. Any damage there cannot leave a single Iranian ruler the option of remaining neutral, regardless of whether they are among moderates or hard-liners. The Shiite religious heritage is a shared one between Iraq and Iran.
It is possible to see Iran pushing a fight against American troops, but standing behind damage to Shiite shrines is not credible. Yet, Allawi, a feisty and tough customer, has now officially thrown the gauntlet, as if he were asking for a fight at a time when he has yet to demonstrate his government can protect all Iraqis against insurgents, domestic and foreign alike.
Iran wasted no time pointing it out. In his toughest speech yet, former Iranian President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, currently head of the equivalent of the Iranian National Security Council - Majlis Tashkhis Masaleh Al Nizam - minced no words in last Friday's sermon in Tehran, when he warned the Americans and Allawi's government of a rise in the number of suicide bombers targeting them inside Iraq in "defence of Islam".
New turn of events
Iraqi nationalists are split over the meaning of the new turn of events. Some argue that the Iranians and their various militias and supporters started the trouble, taunting the Allawi government and the Americans.
Other, equally sincere Iraqi nationalists say it is the Americans who are encouraging the whole mess in order to turn Iraq into the one area where they can trap all fundamentalist-inspired militant movements, Iraqi or foreign, and kill their members.
The truth, as usual, lies in between, but the Bush administration and Iran have been heading for a high-noon duel for some time now. It is unfortunate that Allawi has chosen his camp with the Bush folks. It may cost him, and the whole Gulf region, dearly.
One way or the other, "pandemonium" best describes what is coming. The present mess has three components: American, Iraqi and foreign. It would seem the new American occupation authorities wasted little time repeating the same errors of the last administration of General Ricardo Sanchez and Paul Bremmer III.
They waged yet another "final" battle to "finish off" the ragtag Mahdi Army of Al Sadr, and this backfired. The Mahdi, as in the past, will disappear now and re-appear later, inside Baghdad itself - in Sadr City, home to two million Shiites, where an American helicopter was shot down in this latest fighting. Such is the nature of guerilla warfare.
Inside the Iraqi camp cards have been reshuffled too. The two Shiite figures locking horns are Allawi and the young Al Sadr. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, who until now presented the Americans with some hope of boosting their views among Shiites, has conveniently left Najaf just before the fighting began, for medical treatment in London.
Part of what he may have left behind too is his prestige and influence. Great Shiite religious leaders do not go away when their people come under attack.
The outsiders' card has also been thrown into the game. A real nightmare would start if Iran makes the decision - which Iranian officials assure me they have not yet done - to actively engage the harassed, tired, demoralised and overstretched American troops trapped behind their barbed wire enclaves in Iraq.
This would be a real war of attrition. It must be recalled that Iran has long arms inside Iraq, which have supported over 20 years of engagement ever since the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war that started in 1980.
Iran has since built not one but several Iraqi militias, similar to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has a huge intelligence apparatus deeply penetrating the Iraqi army, police, security forces and government. And it has open borders from where more men and weapons can pour into Iraq.
Above all, it seems not to be intimidated by American reprisals. This is all reminiscent of the famous Ho Shi Minh trail in Vietnam through which, some 40 years ago, North Vietnamese troops and arms poured into South Vietnam to produce the first serious American military defeat since World War II.
Know how to fight
Should Iran start moving its chess pieces inside Iraq what will be America's and Allawi's counter-strategy? One is not aware of what more the Americans can do (invade Iran?) or what Allawi has up his sleeve.
Some in the Bush administration talk of bombing 50 Iranian sites, including the nuclear reactor. This would absolutely unite Iranians. And these guys know how to fight long wars and take huge losses until they prevail. As for Allawi, as tough as he is, we must remember he remains untested.
Youssef M. Ibrahim , a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is Managing Director of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
GulfNews - Dubai - 10 August 2004