Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Four Times Falluja Equals?

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California Irvine and author of the forthcoming books Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948, He is also the editor with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. He last spent time in Iraq in the early spring of this year.

By Mark LeVine

As American forces penetrate ever deeper and more destructively into the city of Falluja, each of the major players in this violent drama is engaged in a complex, constantly shifting calculus involving ways of turning events to their advantage. Of the many possible outcomes to the battle of Falluja, the four which seem most plausible follow, starting with the one that might be viewed most positively by the Bush administration. In sum, they offer us a grim picture of how the window of success has closed on American strategists in Iraq. Even the "best" outcomes below (from the administration's point of view) have lost the trappings of freedom and democracy that helped justify the invasion nineteen months ago.

The Hama Solution: In 1982, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad put down a potential nationwide revolt of religious activists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood by killing upwards of 20,000 people in the city of Hama, essentially flattening its central districts in the process. In an Iraqi version of the "Hama solution," the Americans and their Iraqi allies would take Falluja relatively quickly -- at whatever cost to its essential infrastructure -- in the process killing the majority of the resistance fighters in the city along with uncounted civilians who were too poor, young, old or infirm to flee before the invasion. Falluja would then act as a terrifying example to other rebellious Iraqi cities. The end, however temporary, of Mutaqa al-Sadr's Shia insurgency in the early fall increased the likelihood of success for such a move, freeing up as it did American troops from Najaf in the south and from the Shi'i slum of Sadr City in Baghdad. At the same time, the many month-long threat of a massive attack on Falluja seems to have created fracture lines in the resistance between indigenous groups seeking political solutions that might avoid mass civilian casualties and smaller groups of foreign jihadists, unbound by local ties and determined to fight to the death.

On the other hand, all those months of saber rattling evidently allowed many local fighters and jihadist leaders to leave the city before the invasion began, a troublesome development for American strategists and the interim government of Iyad Allawi as they seek to pacify the larger Sunni Triangle in time for announced elections in January. In the last week, after all, insurgents reoccupied the city center of Ramadi, attacked fiercely in Samarra, fought it out in Baghdad neighborhoods, and left authority in Mosul tottering, while American troops were occupied with the battle of Falluja -- and these were just a few of the many indications that, no matter what happens in Falluja, the insurgency is anything but defeated.

Yet if enough resistance fighters are killed to reclaim Falluja and sap the force of the insurgency in other cities, American strategists can at least hope to be on their way to a limited pacification of Sunni Iraq. Sunni leaders might next be bought off or co-opted and enough followers, fighters, and civilians, killed elsewhere to quiet the country for the next several months. Iraq would then have its "successful" election, and the Bush Administration would breathe a huge sigh of relief. So would Prime Minister Allawi who, according to a senior Iraqi official with whom I've spoken in recent days, is still livid that the Americans bypassed him to negotiate an end to the siege of Najaf. (According to my source, the bandaged hand Allawi sported during his recent trip to New York came from "banging his hands on the wall" after leaning of a secret meeting between American Ambassador John Negroponte and Shiite rebel leaders.) In one fashion or another, in this scenario, "democracy" would mean an extension of the Allawi government via a limited and managed election.

The ongoing, seemingly ceaseless violence in the Palestinian Occupied Territories under Israeli occupation reminds us that pacifying an occupied population is an endless job. But if, as the Bush administration now hopes, the insurgency can simply be tamped down, when it resurfaces next spring it will be the problem of an elected Iraqi government. American troops, in the meanwhile, would largely be withdrawn to a dozen or more major bases lowering American casualties; yet they could be called back into action any time violence threatened to get out of hand. Iraq would then take its place beside Colombia, Israel, and Sri Lanka, to name only a few of the many countries plagued by ongoing but "manageable" political violence -- while the United States would remain astride the second largest oil reserves in the world. This is today the best option available to the Bush administration.

The Jenin Scenario: If Falluja is largely subdued but low-level fighting continues for weeks or months in its back streets, chaos and anarchy might increase across the country, forcing a curtailment or postponement of the January elections, and yet the overall situation might not spin completely out of American control. The Allawi government would remain more or less in power in Baghdad and American troops could continue to occupy the country indefinitely (under the argument that the United States can't leave Iraq in the midst of chaos). The insurgency would be slowly exhausted over a longer period of time, laying the groundwork for a post-independence system favorable to American interests.

Here, the example of the 2002 Israeli siege of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin might prove the model for the present Falluja campaign. It stirred up incredible anger, violence, and chaos in Palestinian society and outrage internationally, but when the dust settled -- as it usually does --Israel's strategic position was actually stronger than before.

Even if the dust doesn't settle quite as advantageously in Iraq, or settle at all, Bush Administration hawks could turn the ensuing low-level chaos to their immediate advantage by allowing it, or encouraging it to spread to Syria (near whose border the U.S. recently staged a bloody invasion of the Iraqi town of Tal Afar) or Iran (already in the sights of senior Administration officials, regardless of any nuclear deal its leaders may sign with the Europeans). In fact, it is well known that Israeli operatives have been working with Kurds in both border regions to gauge the feasibility of such a scenario. In the meantime, according to Iraqi officials I've spoken with, American oil companies are quietly exploring the 90% of Iraq where oil deposits have yet to be tapped, free of potentially embarrassing scrutiny by a media focused on urban violence rather than desert oil. American casualties would also remain limited; media attention modest; and so a Jenin scenario would be seen, under the circumstances, as a quiet but significant victory by the Bush administration.

The "British" Solution (or 1920 Revisited): If the invasion of Falluja backfires -- if the fighting drags on and, for instance, there is evidence of large-scale civilian casualties, perhaps broadcast to the world by a dreaded al-Jazeera reporter via video phone -- Iraqi public opinion might be inflamed to the point of sparking a more general Sunni or yet more significantly Sunni-Shi'i revolt. This actually happened in 1920 when occupying British troops tried to use massive force to pacify the country and the results were devastating for the occupiers (as well as the occupied); or if the resistance in Falluja proves more resilient or better armed than American military officials assume it to be and is capable of dragging out the fighting until a desperate compromise solution along the lines of the deal to end the Najaf siege becomes inevitable, a revolt might also be encouraged; or if the insurgents, with months to plan, left only a minimal force in Falluja to fight a delaying action against the Americans and their Iraqi allies and are able to conduct a larger, sustained insurgency across Sunni (and parts of Shiite) Iraq, as seems increasingly likely, the result could be the same.

Any one of these developments or any combination of them would destroy what is left of the credibility of the Americans and of the Interim Iraqi Government. If not contained, the present insurgency, facing overwhelming and relatively indiscriminate American power, could spark a more general revolt, joined by significant number of Shi'ites (whose leaders, unlike during the first siege of Falluja in April, have so far remained relatively quiet). It would capitalize on the intense anger felt by a country that has seen as many as 100,000 of its citizens killed in the last eighteen months. With the political costs of retreat almost incalculable, the Bush administration in turn might ratchet up the violence (as it did in Vietnam) before considering real withdrawal strategies, hoping that the prospect of tens of thousands of further deaths in the next year would lead Iraqis to accept some continued American military presence in the country and, most important, a continued hand in the management of the country's petroleum resources.

The "French" Scenario: Any version of the "British" solution might, sooner or later, lead the Bush administration into the thickets of the even more unsettling "French" scenario. In this, a growing awareness of the human toll of the occupation, coupled with levels of political corruption that are already staggering would lend force to a desire to internationalize the next phase of Iraq's transition to full sovereignty. (A former top Allawi aide, who recently escaped the country, summed up Iraqi despair on the issue of corruption in lamenting to me that "the new regime is the same as Saddam's, just with different faces.") The "French" scenario might involve the intercession of France, Germany, and Spain, joined by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan and supported by a resurgent worldwide anti-war movement aroused by the ongoing horrors of Iraq. With the insurgency still under way, pressure would be applied for a cease-fire coupled with an internationalization of the transition to sovereignty based on the complete failure of the United States and the Allawi government to stabilize the country. French President Chirac's stated desire to build a counterweight to U.S. power and Kofi Anan's rising displeasure with U.S. actions could encourage such a development, as could the resignation of the Sunni members of the interim government and a full-scale Sunni boycott of any future American-organized elections. While the United States and the British would likely veto any Security Council resolution to mandate such a move, the groundswell of support for it could lead to major changes in the management of the occupation in the lead-up to elections.

If all four outcomes described above are striking for what they reveal about the narrowing of the Bush Administration's grand vision of a democratic and prosperous Iraq, the last one -- a kind of final humiliation -- would certainly be fiercely resisted by American officials and the Allawi government (nor would some factions of the insurgency be any too pleased by the possibility).

The wild card in the current crisis is the Iraqi people who, since the toppling of the Hussein regime, have more often than not remained horrified spectators while their country's political landscape has been reshaped. This passivity, though understandable given the Iraqi experience over the previous two decades, has proved as disastrous for them and their country as the passivity of Palestinians was during the crucial early years of the Oslo peace process (which in actuality allowed Israel to increase significantly its West Bank and Gaza settlements, while Yasir Arafat cemented his autocratic and corrupt rule virtually cost-free).

Ayatollah Ali Sistani's call for a massive nonviolent mobilization to end the siege of Najaf and the success of women's groups in preventing a rollback of their social rights, both demonstrate that the Iraqi people can become active shapers of their own destiny. Were the Shiites to pour into the streets nationwide, as they did in Najaf in response to Sistani, the Iraqi situation would immediately take on a different look and the American occupation might find its days quickly numbered. But can Iraqi society challenge the violent calculus of American military planners and insurgents alike with a vision of a future free of occupation and autocracy, corruption and extremism? More than wishing the Iraqis well, the international community needs to get its hands dirty to ensure that they have a fighting chance.