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Eye on Iraq: Adrift in a complex war

By
MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- U.S. policymakers and forces in Iraq are now adrift in a complex, many-sided war and the democratic political system that was the centerpiece of U.S. strategy is collapsing before Washington's eyes.

Mahmoud al-Mashadani, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, warned deputies Wednesday morning they might only have three or four months to prevent the irreversible collapse of their country and its splintering into mutually hostile religious and ethnic enclaves. 'We have three to four months to reconcile," he said. "If the country doesn't survive, it goes under."

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Mashadani's warning came the day after the parliament voted to continue the emergency powers of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for another month and as violence and terror continued to erupt on all sides.

Applying a relatively rational analysis, several overlapping conflicts are currently raging simultaneously in Iraq.

First, the long-running, three-and-a-half-year-old Sunni insurgency against U.S, forces and the new Iraqi government continues unabated in two western provinces and in the capital Baghdad. As our companion "Iraq Benchmarks" has confirmed, despite other conflicts erupting one very side the Sunni insurgents have been able to keep up their level of attrition attacks and rates of inflicting casualties on U.S, forces through this year.

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Second, since the bombing of the al-Askariya, or Golden Mosque, in Samara in Feb, 22, Shiite militia forces have reacted with much greater force against the general Sunni community, launching campaigns of random killings. The focus of this conflict has been also in and around Baghdad, and in central provinces with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations.

Third, at the prompting of U.S, leaders and military commanders, the shaky new Iraqi army -- intended to eventually function at a full strength of 10 divisions -- has launched a series of campaigns against some of the Shiite militias, especially Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, to try and get them under control.

However, the performance of regular Iraqi forces, who are generally Shiite commanded and dominated by Shiites, has so far been very disappointing and in some recent clashes they have had to rely on the Badr Brigades, another Shiite irregular militia force, for support.

Therefore, far from asserting the control and credibility of the regular Iraqi army over the Shiite militias as U.S. commanders intended, the recent campaigns have weakened its standing still further and made it appear a mere cats-paw in a fourth struggle, that between the Mahdi Army, and the Badr Brigade, with other quasi-independent Shiite militias either allied to them or watching closely to see which of them comes out on top.

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Nor do these four conflicts -- the Sunni insurgency against U.S. and allied forces, the Sunni-Shiite conflict, the Iraqi army battle with the Shiite militias and the internal struggles between the Shiite militias -- exhaust the number of potential conflicts in Iraq.

The Kurds look likely to try and fully secede from the central government in Baghdad and that could open up a new conflict between them and the Shiite dominated Maliki government. In addition, anti-American Shiite militias led by the Mahdi Army could erupt in revolt at any time against U.S. forces as well as the Maliki government and threaten to cut the crucial overland supply route from Kuwait to Central Iraq that is essential to provision the 140,000 U.S. troops in the country. At least, this last threat appears to have receded partially following the halting of Israeli military operations against the Shiite Hezbollah, or Party of God, in southern Lebanon.

The Middle East has seen no conflict as many-sided and complicated as this since the Lebanon civil war from 1975/6 through 1991. The reasons for that similarity and the implications to be drawn from it are very alarming.

The main parallel is that the complexity, longevity and high cost in human life of the Lebanese civil war were primarily caused by the collapse of the central government and the inability of the warring parties to agree on creating a new one. That condition already exists in Iraq, where the Mailiki's government is effectively helplessly outside the heavily defended Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad. It is not even master of significant enclaves outside the Green Zone in its own capital.

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The lesson to be drawn from this ongoing condition is that the many-sided Iraqi conflict, like the Lebanese one before it, is already so intractable that it is almost certain to last for many years at the cost of scores of thousands more lives, most of them innocent civilians, just as the Lebanese one did. The total death toll of the Lebanon civil war is believed to have run as high as 150,000 people, most of them in the more intense, early years of the conflict.

That level of suffering and deaths no longer appears inconceivable in Iraq, even while U.S. troops remain in the country. The number of people killed in militia clashes, attacks on regular armed forces and inter-ethnic reprisal killings and massacres is already put at around 100 a day and it has been running at that level for at least two or three months. Years of killing at that level would produce more than 36,000 dead -- a bloodbath easily on the Lebanese scale.

In the Bible, the prophet Habakkuk warns sinners that if they do not change their ways, "the

Violence of Lebanon" shall engulf them. That curse seems to have already overtaken the 28 million people of Iraq.

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