The impact of the Saddam video

The Times has a must read piece on the political impact of the now infamous bootlegged Saddam video:

For Sunnis, Dictator’s Degrading End Signals Ominous Dawn for the New Iraq

BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 — For Sunni Arabs here, the ugly reality of the new Iraq seemed to crystallize in a two-minute segment of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, filmed surreptitiously on a cellphone.

The video featured excited taunting of Mr. Hussein by hooded Shiite guards. Passed around from cellphone to cellphone on Sunday, the images had echoes of the videos Sunni militants take of beheadings.

“Yes, he was a dictator, but he was killed by a death squad,” said a Sunni Arab woman in western Baghdad who was too afraid to give her name. “What’s the difference between him and them?”

There was, of course, a difference. Mr. Hussein was a brutal dictator, while the Shiite organizers of the execution are members of the popularly elected Iraqi government that the United States helped put in place as an attempt to implant a democracy.

It was supposed to be a formal and solemn proceeding carried out by a dispassionate state. But the grainy recording of the execution’s cruel theater summed up what has become increasingly clear on the streets of the capital: that the Shiite-led government that assumed power in the American effort here is running the state under an undisguised sectarian banner.

The hanging was hasty. Laws governing its timing were bypassed, and the guards charged with keeping order in the chamber instead disrupted it, shouting Shiite militia slogans.

It was a degrading end for a vicious leader, and an ominous beginning for the new Iraq. The Bush administration has already scaled back its hopes for a democracy here. But as the Iraqi government has become ever more set on protecting its Shiite constituency, often at the expense of the Sunni minority, the goal of stopping the sectarian war seems to be slipping out of reach.

“We speak about the crimes of Saddam Hussein, but now here we are behaving in the same way,” said Alaa Makki, a prominent Sunni politician. “We fear that nothing has been changed. On the contrary, we feel it is going in a worse direction.”

After the invasion, Sunni Arabs, bitter at losing their place, refused to take part in Iraq’s first elections, allowing Shiites and Kurds to sweep to power. Americans here spent the following months persuading the Shiites to let the Sunnis back in.

The idea, at the time, was that involving Sunnis in politics would drain the insurgency of its violence. Instead, the violence got worse, and in February, the long-abused Shiites struck back, using the force of the state ministries and agencies that they now control.

Now, American officials are pressing Iraqi leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, to reconcile and have made it a central demand for continued support of the Iraqi government. But the prospects for mutual agreement seem ever more distant.

“I can’t think of any good reason for any level-minded person to be interested in reconciliation,” one secular Sunni politician said.

That unwillingness, shared by most of the Shiite political elite, is a serious challenge to any new American strategy proposal that President Bush may announce soon.

Also a challenge to the emerging Bush strategy is the Joint Chiefs, who are apparently more in touch with the political reality in Iraq today than the White House, as they have been making the case that more American troops means more violence:

The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.

Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.

At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq -- including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.

The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn -- then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.

Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.

The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.

In the coming weeks Congress must ask the tough questions of this failed Administration, and have them explain in plain simple English how they hope to navigate the terrible political reality of Iraq today.  I reprint something I wrote a few weeks ago:

When the President makes his grand announcement about a "new way forward" in Iraq early next year, it is going to be critical that we judge him not on whether it is a new strategy, but whether it is a better one, one that can plausibly achieve its objectives.  For example, what exactly are the troops going to do in Iraq when they get there? And if this is still a war, as the President describes, who is the enemy and how we will our troops engage and defeat them? Is the enemy the Iranian-backed Shiite militias? The Saudi-backed Sunni insurgents? Al Qaeda itself, a small but growing presence in the West?  Maliki's government, partners with the Shiite militias? The Saudis, who say they will intervene militarily if the Sunni Arabs continue to be targeted by Shiite militias? And if the troops are going in as peacekeepers and not warriors, shouldn't we say that, and admit this is a failed occupation and not a war? 

As has been said by many, there is no longer a military solution to our troubles in the Middle East.  By rejecting the core recommendation of the ISG Report, an enhanced diplomatic track intent on making progress on the political and economic problems of the region, the Administration almost certainly guarenteed that whatever path they followed would be new but not better.