New Pieces Changing the Iraq Puzzle

Trying to understand our war in Iraq is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces are missing, and the few pieces you have keep changing shape. It's been that way since March, 2003. It will probably be that way until the last U.S. forces leave Iraq.

Here is the most recent piece. Ammar al-Hakim is a top figure in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), one of the two leading Shi'ite parties in the central government. Last week al-Hakim became the first major Shi'ite figure to visit Anbar province, where he met with and praised Sunni leaders.

That's a new piece in the puzzle, but no one knows its shape for sure, much less where it fits. The visit got virtually no coverage in the U.S. media. The few reports that did appear all saw it differently.

Pepe Escobar, the Asia Times correspondent who is usually one step ahead of the journalistic pack, says it's a sign of a broad new Shi'ite - Sunni coalition emerging with one main goal: getting all U.S. troops and bases out of Iraq. "The ultimate nightmare for White House/Pentagon designs on Middle East energy resources," says Escobar, is coming true. And he points to other evidence: Diverse Sunni resistance groups are in serious talks to form a united front. Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani recently "called for the Iraqi parliament to rein in Blackwater et al, and most of all the 'occupation forces.' He has never spoken out in such blunt language before."

"Most interesting is that Ammar al-Hakim [on his visit to Anbar] was flanked by none other than feared Hadi al-Amri, the leader of the Badr Brigades - the SIIC militia trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, that in fact comprises the bulk of death squads involved in the avalanche of sectarian killings."

But according to Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press, there was someone else by al-Hakim's side: "As a sign of Washington's endorsement, Ammar al-Hakim traveled on U.S. military helicopters, and a senior U.S. official, Maj. Gen. Michael D. Barbero of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the meeting." Presumably the Badr Brigades' al-Amri flew on the U.S. helicopter too. A nice chummy group.

Why is the U.S. military coordinating a visit that could (if Pepe Escobar is right) help cement an all-Iraqi anti-U.S. alliance? The puzzle can look quite different, depending on which pieces you see.

Another AP article, published the day before Hendawi's piece, claimed that the al-Hakim visit "struck a note of national unity in Anbar. ... [It] was the latest sign that key Iraqi politicians may be working toward reconciliation independently of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government."

The British Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (quoted on took a similar approach: "This political activity is in the context of efforts to bring together the points of view of the Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq, in order to realize national reconciliation and bring about agreement for the passage of a number of pieces of legislation in Parliament, starting with the Law on Oil and Gas, and the one on DeBathification in its revised form."

That's just what Washington wants. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran Hendawi's story under the headline: "Rival Iraqi groups forging links and bypassing Maliki; The United States sees such budding relationships as a key part of its strategy." "The U.S. military acknowledges it is urging the grassroots reconciliation," the story said.

But there's another piece that makes this puzzle look rather different. Ammar al-Hakim is not exactly an advocate of strong national government. In fact, he recently "called on Iraqis to work for the creation of self-rule regions across the country. But he cautioned that national unity must be maintained. The idea of breaking up Iraq into self-rule entities has gained traction in Washington." That's from yet another AP article.

Pepe Escobar agrees that al-Hakim is "in favor of 'self-governing regions.' That makes him for many Iraqis a partisan of 'soft partition' -- just like [many] US congressmen." Apparently the U.S. military likes the idea too, at least well enough to lend a Major General and a few helicopters for al-Hakim's outing. reports that there is a "commonplace Iraqi idea that this is a Washington-backed scheme."

Sunni leaders are wary of the plan, according to these reports, but some are at least willing to talk about it, as long as all the "self-governing regions" are created at once. According to the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat (again quoted on al-Hakim's meetings with Sunni leaders "focused on the importance of declaring a federal [entity] in Sunni west Iraq, at the same time as announcements of a Shiite region in the south and a Kurdish one in the north."

On the Shi'ite side, Muqtada al-Sadr and others have rejected "soft partition" outright. According to Al-Hayat, "Al-Hakim is trying, via this encouraging the Sunnis to form their own region, to meet this resistance, by leaving the Sadr movement, the Fadhila party, the Dawa Party and other opponents, with no alternative but to acquiesce in the reality," which would leave al-Hakim and his party at the top of the Iraqi political pyramid.

If this isn't all complicated enough, there is also the ever-elusive Iran piece. Al-Hakim's SIIC party was created by the Iranians; he and his father lived in Teheran for some twenty years. Pepe Escobar notes that the Iranians are trying to make peace between SIIC and the fiercely anti-occupation Muqtada al-Sadr. He speculates that "Tehran and Tehran-supported SIIC must obviously have seen which way the Shi'ite street wind was blowing, so now we have a new, anti-sectarian, anti-occupation SIIC."

The always acute Michael Schwartz thinks that the U.S. military can also see which way the wind is blowing: "Recent statements by U.S. occupation authorities calling for "soft partition" of Iraq into three mostly autonomous regions may be a response to this new unity between Shia and Sunni. Realizing that the U.S. probably cannot sustain its presence if this new alliance is consolidated and strengthened, they are looking for a 'divide and conquer' strategy that would allow the U.S. to control the three regions separately." The long-term bipartisan goal of the U.S. elite is permanent bases, mainly in the Kurdish area, mainly near the border with Iran. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have made that clear.

So how do you put all the pieces together? Perhaps the U.S., Iran, and the emerging Iraqi unified front are creating a triangle, each thinking it can use the other two for its own purposes, each waiting for the day it has achieved the upper hand and no longer needs help from the other two. If so, that day may never come. At best, it's a deadly triangle that's bound to entangle all the parties in more years of death and destruction.

Or perhaps there are other pieces that we don't yet see, which would make the whole picture look very different. As always, we have only a few pieces of the puzzle. We can't know for sure what is going on. All we know for sure is that hundreds of billions of our tax dollars are paying for daily slaughter, and whatever aims our government may have now, they have nothing to do with the best interests of the people of Iraq.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email:

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