Saturday, July 02, 2005

Unrealistic deadlines

The dice is loaded

WASHINGTON has set a mid-July deadline for Iraq's former prime minister Iyad Allawi to finalise a deal with the country's Sunni community to at least partially contain the ongoing insurgency there. The Bush administration is pinning high hopes that Allawi would succeed in his mission. Allawi is holding marathon meetings in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi Sunni leaders who travel there upon his invitation, according to intelligence reports.
Allawi is seeking to convene a Sunni Arab Congress grouping some 250 delegates representing all Sunni factions, parties and guerrilla groups. They will be invited to enter Iraq’s mainstream political process.
Allawi is backed in his mission by Sunni Defence Minister Saadoun Al Duleimi.
The optimism that Allawi would be able to finalise a deal with the Sunnis is seen behind the upbeat note in the speech US President George W. Bush made on June 28 at the US air base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Bush said that he was not making any major change in his approach to the insurgency in Iraq but that he had a plan to end the crisis in the beleaguered country where dozens of Iraqis are being killed on a daily basis. He assured Americans that he would win the war in Iraq.
According to the sources, Washington retained Allawi as its pointman Iraq even after his party failed to secure enough seats in the Jan.30 elections that produced a new government with Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as president and Shiite Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister.
The mainstream Sunni community stayed away from the elections and are not represented in the government. Washington wanted to address that through nominating a few Sunni leaders, but Shiite rejection of that strategy scuttled the American plan.
Since then Allawi, a Shiite with strong connections with the Central Intelligence Agency has been trying to convince the Sunnis into dropping their boycott and joining the process of drafting a constitution leading to new elections for a government on the basis of that constitution.
Since the Jaafari government took office in April, more than 1,000, most of them Iraqis, have been killed in the insurgency.
While Allawi is tasked with dealing with the Sunni community, the US military is focusing on the non-Iraqi Jihad component of the insurgents said to be led by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant affiliated with Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda.
Allawi has enlisted the help of Jordan and Egypt as well as the Arab League in his mission. He visited Cairo on June 24 and held talks with President Hosni Mubarak and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Both supported his mission.
A recent call by the grand mufti of Al Azhar, the highest Sunni authority, on the insurgents in Iraq to suspend their attacks was seen as linked to Mubarak's endorsement of Allawi's mission.
According to the sources, Allawi visited Syria on June 23 and held talks with President Bashar Al Assad, but the response from Damascus to his appeals for a total blockade of jihadist volunteers entering Iraq through the porous border was not seen to be very positive.
The Syrians categorically denied that they were party to the infiltration to Iraq and pointed out that they had co-operated fully with the US forces in recent operations against Zarqawi near the frontier.
Jordan has also endorsed Allawi's mission. Allawi was based in Amman during the last decade of Saddam Hussein's reign in power and he had developed close contacts with senior Jordanian leaders. National security adviser General Saad Kheir is said to be in charge of the Jordanian liaison officers carrying messages back and forth between the Iraqi parties.
Among the people Allawi has already met in Amman were some leaders of the militant Ansar Al Islam movement, which has claimed responsibility for scores of attacks against the US-led coalition forces in Iraq as well as kidnappings (Jordan has given an undertaking that it would not seek to detain any visitors to Allawi in Amman even though they might be wanted for anti-Jordanian activities in Iraq).
Ansar al Islam was upset when the contacts with Allawi were leaked to the media and therefore it hastily issued several statements reaffirming its commitment to jihad.
Washington is not hoping for a complete end to insurgent attacks on the basis of agreements hoped to be worked out at the proposed Sunni congress. It is only expecting to convince the mainstream Sunni leaders to stay away from the insurgency and refuse to align themselves with non-Iraqi jihadists like Zarqawi.
If that mission is accomplished, according to the American strategy, then it would make it easier for the US military in Iraq to hunt down jihadists and eliminate them.
Bush, who has said he did not think he needed to send more troops to Iraq to suppress the insurgency, should but be aware that there is no military solution in Iraq and hence he is betting on Allawi's success.
However, the reality on the ground suggests Allawi would not be able to make much headway either.
If anything, the intensity of the insurgency has only grown in recent weeks. It was based on this realisation that US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the gloomy assessment that insurgencies tend to go on for six, eight, 10, 12 years.
US Middle East commander General John Abizaid recently told a Congressional panel that the Iraqi insurgency was still running with the same intensity and foreign fighters were continuing to join the war at the same level that existed six months ago.
Other factors that undermine Allawi's mission include the pattern that has emerged in Iraq under which the Sunni leaders engage themselves in political talks with mediators but also continue to support the insurgency — "they keep shooting and speaking at the same time" as one source puts it."
Another is the ambitions of the Shiites and Kurds to consolidate their newfound prominence in pos-Saddam Iraq at the expense of the Sunnis. Both communities are expanding their respective spheres of influence in the south and north and this has narrowed the Sunni options to central Iraq and the area is fast shrinking.
The US has not been able to influence Iran into suspending its alleged clandestine operations in support of the insurgents. American strategists argue that the conservative Shiite theocrats of Tehran and Qom are aware that American gunsights would be trained against them if the US military is allowed to stabilise Iraq and therefor continued instability in their western neighbour is deemed to be a necessity for their survival in power.
Both President Talabani and Prime Minister Jaafari as well as the Kurdish and Shiite camps they represent are not very enthusiastic about giving more weightage to the Sunnis in governance and this also is seen as working against Allawi's mission.
What all these boil down to is simple: The US is severely handicapped in its effort to pacify Iraq. More and more volunteers are turning up to fight the US-led coalition forces and Iraqis seen aligned with them, including the more than 160,000 ill-trained soldiers. The killing and maiming of a few insurgents here and there are temporary victories since those challenging the US presence in Iraq are fighting the war without any rules and resort to most unexpected tactics.
"The solution is more political than military at this point," according to Michael O'Hanlon, who heads the Iraq Index project at the Brookings Institution. "We do need to improve safety on the streets, to get the politics working to our advantage, but most of the solution is to get the Sunni Arabs aboard the political process," he recently told San Francisco Chronicle.
That is what Allawi is trying to do and this why Bush is hoping against hope that Allawi would succeed. However, the mid-July deadline is unrealistic. Allawi had been in touch with the Sunnis since he took over from US administrator Paul Bremer in June 2004 and has not made much headway, and there are only negative signals coming out of Iraq for any deadline for the Sunnis to sign on his proposals.