The Iraqi government will be weakened by the US dispatching more troops to Iraq and may well be replaced by a more pro-American administration in Baghdad. The increase in American involvement in Iraq is also convincing Iraqis that the US occupation is going to be permanent. “Many people now think the Americans are never going to leave,” said Ghassan Attiyah, the Iraqi political commentator.
Many Iraqis previously suspected that US claims that it would only stay in Iraq for a short period were false and they will now believe their suspicions were justified. The Shia majority also fear that Washington will impose a government better prepared to carry out US instructions than that of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
At the heart of President Bush’s speech was the message that it would be American views on what must be done in Iraq that must be obeyed. It will be very difficult for the Iraqi government to prevent the US launching an assault on the Shia bastion of Sadr City, home to two-and-a-half million people. In theory, sovereignty was returned to Iraq in June 2004, but Mr Maliki has said he cannot move a company of troops without US permission. The increase in the number of US brigades in Baghdad will increase US control.
The threat from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Mr Maliki’s government was living on “borrowed time” underlines that Washington will only accept a resolutely pro-US Iraqi government. It might seek to promote a government led by Adel Abdel Mehdi, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), as well as secular leaders such as Iyad Allawi.
“Such a government would look good on the surface,” said Mr Attiyah, “but it would be weak.” Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Sciri, has been losing popularity among Shia and Iyad Allawi has performed poorly at the polls.
Glib talk in Washington of eliminating Sadr and the Mehdi Army forgets that he represents a political movement of great power. The Sadrists are essentially the party of the Shia poor who make up much of the Iraqi population. Saddam Hussein killed Muqtada’s father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and two of his sons in 1999 but did not destroy his movement.
Sadr held talks with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani this week and will probably try to avoid a confrontation with the US. His men suffered serious losses during two military confrontations with the Americans in 2004. Since then Sadr has opposed the occupation but taken part in the political process. The influence of Sistani has fallen but he is still very important and does not want the Shia alliance to dissolve.
Overall, the US position in Iraq is weakening for political reasons just as President Bush tries to prop it up militarily. The invasion of 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam was welcomed by almost all Kurds and most Shia. Now an ever-increasing number of Shia see the US as their main opponent in preventing the emergence of a Shia Iraq.
The US does not have the strength in Iraq to eliminate either the Shia militias or the Sunni insurgents. President Bush ensured by his speech that neither Syria nor Iran have any reason to help him. “Iran is willing to compromise in Iraq but it cannot afford to be defeated there,” said one Iraqi political observer yesterday. But the fact that the US is not likely to succeed does not mean it will not try.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, published by Verso in October.