It was about eleven months ago that President Bush, standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that major combat operations in Iraq were over.
It was hopeful and largely wishful thinking. The last eleven months have been a war of insurgency against our occupation in Iraq that has grown slowly but steadily stronger. One only needs to look at the statistics to see the truth. 617 Americans soldiers died in the war, 478 of which occurred since “Mission Accomplished”. 3466 Americans have been wounded, 300 in March alone.
Now the United States enters a much more dangerous time in Iraq. Sadly, we set it off. It began when our overlord Paul Bremmer shut down a newspaper belonging to supporters of the radical Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. (Freedom of the press apparently has certain boundaries in Iraq.) The same day, of course, insurgents in the Sunni city (and former Hussein stronghold) of Falluja killed four American mercenaries. You may have seen pictures of their carcasses on TV or in a newspaper suspended from a bridge.
Most of you who have been studying the war probably realize that Shi’ites comprise the majority of Iraqis. Thus far the Shi’ites, if they have not been tacitly on our side, have largely avoided being dragged into the insurgency. But because we shut down this paper (or perhaps because it became clear that al-Sadr had an arrest warrant on his head) it became easy for al-Sadr, who didn’t like us anyhow, to call for his followers to take up arms against us.
Al-Sadr is a 30-year-old cleric who wields enormous influence among poor Shi’ites. It is estimated that he has a committed following of about one million people. How many of them will take up arms against us is unknown, but al-Sadr’s personal army is estimated to be from three to ten thousand soldiers. Most likely a whole lot more people than that, if directed, would take up arms if al-Sadr asked them too. And there is no lack of small and medium range arms in Iraq.
Al-Sadr is no friend to democracy. He wants Iraq to be an Islamic state. He is also implicated in the death of cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Al-Khoei was hacked to death at a Najaf mosque last April by a mob. Al-Sadr has denied involvement in the killing.
However noble our intentions are to bring this man to justice, attempting to do so will likely ignite Iraq against us. Iraq has been teetering on the edge of wide scale insurrection for months. This is likely to cause full scale and open insurrection. Unfortunately at a time when caution and due consideration should be followed we are doing just the opposite. Our marines are surrounding Falluja and going house to house in hopes of finding those responsible for that atrocity. And yesterday our army waged a pitched battle with Sadr’s forces in Baghdad that killed seven of our soldiers and wounded 21 others.
Arresting al-Sadr would be a very stupid thing for coalition forces to do. It would only unleash large numbers of Shi’ite forces against us. These are forces we have not had to contend with until now. In numbers and readily available arms they could create a far larger insurrection than anything we’ve witnessed thus far.
Unfortunately I believe it is too late at this point. We’ve lit the quick fuse. And we are spreading gasoline near the bomb just to make sure it goes off. It will soon become clear that not only was the mission not accomplished, but also that this insurgency will in retrospect be seen as an eleven month pause in this war. But this time, instead of a war of liberation from Saddam Hussein, it will be a war of liberation from American forces. And by liberating Iraqi from us, the country is likely to descend into all out religious and sectarian civil war.
I hope more than you would believe that I am wrong about this prediction. But like the result of the war on Iraq itself, this one is not hard to call. Never, never piss off the majority population in a country you occupying. We may have 100,000 troops or so on the ground, but we cannot win a war where the majority of the Shi’ite population takes up arms against us. Attempts to apply more force will only worsen the situation. We need calm and statesmanship right now. We need an active United Nations presence to mediate disputes and to exercise overall authority until Iraq can transition to another form of government. Instead we will find ourselves in a real war the likes of which we have not seen since Vietnam.