February 23, 2005

Iraq: 3 ethnic groups don't go into 2 oil regions

Strong analytical article on Iraq from Patrick Cockburn in the UK Independent:

Americans and rebels begin talks on timetable for withdrawal from Iraq

American officials are talking to negotiators from the anti-US resistance in Iraq, whom they have denounced in the past as foreign fighters and remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Insurgent leaders and Pentagon officials have confirmed to Time magazine that talks have taken place for the first time in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

The Sunni guerrillas want a timetable for a US withdrawal, first from Iraqi cities and then from the country as a whole. American officials aim to see if they can drive a wedge between nationalist guerrillas and fanatical Islamist groups.

Abu Marwan, a resistance commander, is quoted as saying that the insurgents want to "fight and negotiate". They are modelling their strategy on that of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. This means creating a united political organisation with a programme opposed to the US occupation.

US military commanders are now dubious about the chances of winning an outright military victory over the Sunni rebels who have a firm core of supporters among the five million-strong Sunni Muslim community. The US military has lost 1,479 dead and 10,740 wounded in Iraq since the invasion began in March 2003.

The talks so far are tentative but they indicate a recognition on the part of the US that it will need a political solution. Those willing to sit down with US diplomats and officials are "nationalists" composed primarily of former military and security officers from Saddam's Hussein's government.

The Iraqi resistance is highly fragmented and regionalised. Groups often only exist in a single city. In guerrilla warfare this may be an advantage since no command structure can be penetrated or disrupted.

The speed with which the insurgents became so effective after the American invasion is explained by many of the fighters being professional soldiers, and their being unemployed after the Iraqi army was dissolved in May 2003.

The Islamist groups, of which the most notorious and heavily publicised is that led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have no intention of talking and have threatened to kill those who do. The cells behind the devastating suicide-bombing campaign are openly sectarian, targeting the Shia Muslim community as they pray or march in religious processions.

The fundamentalist militants believe that Iraq is an ideal location to fight the US. They have local sympathisers and can use the long, open borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria which are impossible to police. They are also well financed in a deeply impoverished country.

The slaughter of Shia civilians by suicide bombers has made it very difficult for the resistance to claim that it is a nationalist insurgency representing all Iraqis against the occupation. After six months of suicide bombings orchestrated from Fallujah against young army and police recruits, most Shia Muslims in Baghdad were delighted when the US Marines largely destroyed the city last November.

A problem for the US and the interim Iraqi government is that it is unclear if self-declared leaders of the resistance possess the authority that they claim. No less than 38 Sunni groups have said that they have carried out attacks on US forces. Many have only a shadowy existence.

There are signs that the different groups are trying to combine militarily and politically. Just as the US Marines were storming Fallujah in November the fighters in the largely Sunni Arab city of Mosul united to take it over. When the US Army counter-attacked, they did not stand and fight but melted away. Some nationalist groups in Mosul went out of their way to show that they were not sectarian by freeing a Christian businessman held by kidnappers. But, when the US Army damaged two mosques, another resistance cell responded by blowing up two Christian churches.

The new Iraqi government about to take office after the election on 30 January will be ambivalent about talks between the US and the resistance. A Shia-Kurdish administration is unlikely to have much sympathy with Sunni fanatics and former Baath party officials who persecuted them for years.

The new Iraqi army reflects this political make-up, being reliant on Kurds and Shias. It is too weak to withstand the onslaught of the insurgents without the backing of the US Army. It will therefore be impossible for the US to withdraw as the resistance demands.

As I've been arguing for awhile, probably the best solution would be to split the "nationalist" Sunnis from the small number of foreigners by promising to withdraw, team up with the "nationalist" Sunnis to hunt down and exterminate the outsiders, then skedaddle. (Of course, they aren't real nationalists, they are Sunniists.)

But now democracy is going to get in the way of sensible realpolitik, since the winners in the election like to see Sunnis die, but, as we saw at Fallujah, they don't seem willing to take the risk of killing them themselves, so their attitude toward us seems to be, "Let's you and him fight."

The fundamental problem is that there are three main groups in Iraq but only two oil regions, so somebody is likely to wind up without oil at some point. And since the GDP per capita of Iraq not counting oil is roughly sub-Saharan, well, that encourages each group to try very hard not to wind up the odd man out with no oil.

There may well be a good solution to this chess puzzle, but I haven't figured it out yet.

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