Gen. Anthony Zinni began warning that ousting
Saddam Hussein, let alone invading Iraq, risked
destabilizing the entire Middle East back in 1998,
when he led U.S. Central Command and testified
against the Iraq Liberation Act that made "regime
change" official US policy.
just six months before the actual invasion last
March, in October 2002, he told the annual Fletcher
Conference on National Security Strategy, "we
are about to do something that will ignite a fuse
in this region that we will rue the day we ever
President George W. Bush tried hard to project
a sense of confidence and control concerning Iraq
and the larger Middle East in his State of the
Union Address on Tuesday, a careful look at the
news this week suggested that Zinni's fears were
of possible civil war in Iraq finally reached
the front pages of US newspapers, while reports
that at least some elements of the administration
are pushing for military action against Hezbollah
in Lebanon and targets in Syria surfaced for the
first time since last summer.
the same time, by omitting any reference to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech, Bush
indicated he has no intention of seriously pressing
either party toward a cease-fire, let alone peace
talks designed to meet the goal of the "roadmap":
securing Palestinian statehood by next year.
other words, the outlook for the region between
the eastern Mediterranean and Iran 10 months after
US troops launched their drive from Kuwait to
Iraq is for more -- possibly a lot more -- turbulence.
before this week, demands by Iraqi Kurds for virtually
total autonomy, including the retention of their
own "pesh merga" force, in a new, federal Iraq
have been drawing grim warnings from neighboring
Turkey, Iran and Syria -- which all have large
and restive Kurdish populations.
last week's rejection -- by Iraq's most powerful
Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani
-- of a US plan to transfer sovereignty to a transitional
government that will not be directly elected by
the Iraqi people, has brought home the message
that whatever progress Washington is making in
suppressing the insurgency in the "Sunni Triangle"
of central Iraq could very quickly be overwhelmed
by the lack of a credible political strategy.
officers in Iraq are warning that the country
may be on a path to civil war," was the lead sentence
in a front-page article in the Philadelphia Inquirer
article, written by veteran Knight-Ridder reporters
who have consistently led the mainstream media
in uncovering secrets the Bush administration
would rather not have exposed, quoted senior US
officials as saying that failure to satisfy demands
for direct elections could spark an uprising by
much of the heretofore friendly Shi'a population,
who make up 60 percent or more of Iraq's 24 million
message was underscored by the mobilization of
hundreds of thousands of Shiites in protest demonstrations
over the past week -- a display of discipline and
organization that clearly surprised the administration.
the Shi'a turn against the U.S.-led coalition,
"this would be like losing the Buddhists in Vietnam,"
Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast expert at the conservative
Center for Strategic and International Studies
(CSIS) here, told the Financial Times Friday,
referring to the US war against the Asian country
in the 1960s and '70s.
would mean losing the war."
unattractive that option seems, holding the direct
elections Sistani is demanding -- which almost
certainly would bring a Shi'a-dominated government
to power -- is also considered distinctly dangerous.
can't simply walk away and let the Shi'a dictate
the shape of the new government," warned John
Hamre, deputy defense secretary under Bush's predecessor
Bill Clinton, earlier this week, "because that
will likely unleash a civil war in Iraq."
who as CSIS' president led an independent task
force to Iraq last August to review the situation
at Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's behest, described
the administration as "caught in a box."
box with more than a few sharp edges, too. Sistani
and his followers have made clear that they, as
well as the Sunnis, strongly oppose a federal
system that would give Kurds the autonomy they
seek, particularly if the northerners were to
claim oil-rich Kirkuk as theirs.
clashes between the pesh merga and Turkomen and
Arab residents in Kirkuk and parts of the northern
Sunni Triangle have been a constant, albeit under-reported,
feature of the landscape for months, but they
might only be a warm-up to a much bigger struggle,
unless the administration prevails on the Kurds
to stand down.
fact that Washington has permitted the pesh merga
to retain its arms has not helped matters.
tensions between Shi'as and Sunnis, who have dominated
Iraqi governments since independence, have mounted
steadily since Dec. 9, when three Sunnis were
killed in an explosion at a Baghdad mosque.
Washington says it agrees with Sistani that direct
elections are best, it insists there is not enough
time to hold them before the scheduled Jun. 30
turnover, a date that was decided more out of
concern for Bush's reelection campaign than by
a commitment to build viable democratic institutions
the complicated "caucus" system that Washington
proposed in November will not work, the administration
appears poised to back the creation of an enlarged
Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) as the transitional
government, although there is no agreement on
how its members would be chosen.
hopes that Sistani, who has indicated he will
abide by the recommendations of U.N. experts as
to how to proceed, will be willing to deal.
this context, the administration appears increasingly
frantic about involving the United Nations, which
plans to send a team to Iraq to assess the situation
it hopes the world body can devise an agreement
that will keep all parties calm and its transition
timetable on track, Washington also clearly sees
it as a convenient scapegoat if things go bad.
content with the mounting signs of civil war in
Iraq, however, the Pentagon, presumably with the
help of Vice President Dick Cheney's office, was
reported this week by Jane's Intelligence Digest
to be drawing up plans for carrying out raids
on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon and Syria, in
what would be a notable expansion of Bush's "war
of the same personnel who worked in the Pentagon's
Office of Special Plans (OSP), which reviewed
intelligence for evidence allegedly linking Saddam
to the al-Qaeda terrorist group and weapons of
mass destruction (WMD) programs before the Iraq
invasion, have reportedly been working on a similar
effort regarding Syria.
Warmer, a neo-conservative who has long advocated
destabilizing Damascus through Lebanon and Iraq,
joined Cheney's staff as his Mideast adviser last
administration ally, Senate Intelligence Committee
Chairman Pat Roberts, also suggested this week
that Iraq's alleged WMD stockpiles were transported
to Syria before the war.
observers here believe the administration is unlikely
to authorize such operations before the November
presidential elections, if only because it would
fuel voter concerns and Democratic charges that
the president's conduct of the "war on terror"
has been reckless and far too costly in blood,
treasure and alliances.
suggest the reports are being deliberately circulated
to intimidate Syria's Assad regime into complying
with a series of US demands, including cutting
off aid to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups.
noted, however, that US attacks against Hezbollah
in Lebanon could well destabilize that country
only a decade after its last civil war.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in
© 2004 Inter Press Service
Posted: January 27, 2004