Does Iraq need a miracle?

Three recent events point to a sad truth: short of a miracle, the situation in Iraq will not improve in the foreseeable future. In fact, it may take a very long time indeed — 10, 20 or even 50 years.

The first of these events was the release of the Baker-Hamilton report early in December, which did a fairly good job of assessing the situation in Iraq and made 79 (most of them sensible) recommendations all leading to the withdrawal of American troops, preferably sooner rather than later.

The second was the hanging of Saddam Hussein at the end of December, which indicates who has the real power in Iraq, after the Americans.

The third event is the outline of President Bush’s latest plan, presented during his speech of January 10, to send 21,500 more troops to augment the 132,000 U.S. military personnel already on the ground in Iraq. This move blatantly ignores the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, as well as dismissing the strong message that American voters sent to Washington just over two months ago, during an election that many analysts interpreted as an urgent request to begin withdrawing troops.

Almost four years after the American occupation of Iraq, the situation in that country stands as follows:

1. Close to one million Iraqis have been killed; more than 1.5 million are displaced within Iraq; and up to 2 million Iraqis have fled the country altogether. Some 100 Iraqi civilians are killed every single day.

2. Personal security, health care, education and public services — including accessibility to clean water, electricity and sewage –” are almost all non-existent or, at best, function at a fraction of pre-occupation standards.

3. Iraq is currently producing around 2.2 million barrels of oil per day, of which 1.5 million barrels are exported; both levels are significantly below pre-invasion levels. And as many as 500,000 barrels of oil are stolen, or are otherwise unaccounted for, every day.

4. Annual inflation has skyrocketed to more than 50%; unemployment stands at an appalling 60%; and foreign investment is almost nil.

5. The most powerful militias in Baghdad belong to the Shi’a Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada al-Sadr and numbering more than 50,000 fighters. Members are predominantly drawn from the 2.5 million population of Sadr City, northeast of Baghdad. Iraq’s current government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, is unwilling or unable to confront militias controlled by a fellow Shi’a. Moqtada Al-Sadr holds 30 seats in Maliki’s parliamentary bloc and five ministries in his cabinet. It is believed that Saddam Hussein’s executioners were mostly from the Al-Sadr militias; even Moqtada himself reportedly was there, leading the shouted prayers and statements made during Hussein’s final moments.

6. Another Shi’a-controlled militia is the Badr Brigade, led by Addul Aziz al-Hakim, the powerful political leader of the Shi’a Coalition. Although fewer in number than the Mahdi Army, many Badr Brigade members have infiltrated into the uniformed Iraqi police, who patrol Shi’a dominated areas in southern Iraq.

7. The autonomous Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq are practically independent, with their own militias acting as security forces (Peshmerga) numbering some 100,000 strong. Their regional government leader, President Massoud Barzani, has ordered Iraqi flags lowered, with Kurdish flags raised in their place. Jalal Talabani, current president of Iraq and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, strongly supports an independent Kurdistan.

8. Sunni Iraqis have been marginalized to the point of having very little political power at all. Tariq al-Hasimi, the country’s Sunni Vice-president, is completely ignored in government decision-making. Even more serious is the fact that Sunni Iraqis, who have no militias of their own, are accusing both the dominant Shi’a militias — the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade — of ethnic cleansing; they claim that the southern city of Basra is now empty of its former Sunni population.

So the American Joint Chiefs of Staff have good reason to be worried about George Bush’s plan to send still more troops into Iraq. Americans will be fighting in a political vacuum at best and enabling a plan of ethnic cleansing at worst. They fear that the situation will deteriorate further, especially if no effort at national reconciliation (as recommended by Baker-Hamilton) is made. This could lead to the American military being set up for an even greater failure — and with no backup options.

The American Joint Chiefs of Staff has cautioned that even a modest troop increase will inevitably lead to more casualties. It makes clear that if the U.S. could provide a maximum of 21,500 troops, but it could not do so all at once, nor sustain those levels indefinitely.

The Baker-Hamilton report states that "because events in Iraq have been set in motion by American decisions and actions [I prefer to call them American aggression, invasion and occupation] the United States has both a national and a moral interest in doing what it can to give Iraqis an opportunity to avert anarchy."

I am not optimistic.