Iraq’s Israeli factor

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 July 2004

The situation in Iraq is complex and dynamic. The many different developments now underway in the country are hard to track, let alone analyse. But three clear trends can be discerned that suggest the possible course of events in the coming months.

First, United States forces continue to suffer a high rate of casualties. Around forty soldiers are being killed or injured every week. In the week ending 1 July, eleven soldiers were killed and many more injured in at least eight separate incidents. On 6 July, four marines were killed in a single incident in al-Anbar province, west of Baghdad; in this province alone, fourteen marines have now lost their lives in a nine-day period.

Second, attacks on Iraqi police stations, politicians and administrators continue. On 3 July, for example, seven Iraqi national guards were killed and at least five injured in an attack on a checkpoint at Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad. The following day insurgents killed two people and wounded two more when they fired at a council building in Khalis, north-east of Baghdad; on 6 July, a car bomb targeted the memorial wake for the victims, resulting in the deaths of fourteen people and injuries to seventy.

Third, there have been further examples of economic sabotage. The most notable is the targeting of an oil pipeline on the Faw peninsula, which cut supplies at the terminal serving Iraq's southern oilfields by more than 50%.

Paul Rogers’s new book, a collection of his openDemocracy weekly columns, is A war on terror: Afghanistan and after (Pluto Press); his monthly briefings for the Oxford Research Group (May 2003–April 2004) are collected in the organisation’s international security report for 2004, Iraq and the War on Terror

The Saddam effect

Meanwhile, the relationship of the Iyad Allawi regime to the continuing insurgency is beginning to take shape. Again, three factors are relevant. First, the regime installed after the United States-led authority’s handover of power on 28 June is willing to support both severe internal security measures and vigorous American military action against presumed insurgents.

On 5 July, for example, the new regime gave its assent (and, it said, intelligence data) to the fifth air assault by US forces on targets in Fallujah in sixteen days. This latest raid, using four 220-kilogram bombs and two 450-kilogram bombs, was directed against housing believed to be used by paramilitaries linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but it was reported that a number of children were among the ten people killed.

Second, the new Iraqi regime may offer amnesties to those insurgents involved in anti-coalition attacks but who do not hold a senior position in their paramilitary organisation. When set alongside support for US air strikes on places such as Fallujah, a policy of this kind makes little sense, but it may also involve a recognition of continuing and potentially growing antipathy to the US military presence - especially among the Sunni Muslim minority.

On 2 July, General Richard B. Myers, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted that as many as 145,000 US troops could be in Iraq for the next five years (see Edward Cody, “Sunni Resistance to US Presence Hardens”, Washington Post, 7 July 2004). The reaction among Sunni religious leaders was that a Sunni-based insurgency was likely to continue as long as there was an American presence; the fact that Myers believes this could be as large as 145,000 suggests just how important Iraq and its oil are to the United States.

Third, an incipient trend that could prove serious is the “Saddam effect”. Despite initial US censorship of parts of his court appearance, Saddam Hussein's recourse to Iraqi nationalism – especially in justifying the 1990 invasion of Kuwait - has had an unexpected impact among Iraqis.

An impromptu poll held by a popular programme on Baghdad’s Radio Dijla found that 125 of 200 callers were opposed to the trial of the former president. Within hours of his TV appearance, videos were on sale in which the footage was intermixed with archive film of the 1991 Gulf war; one outlet sold 500 copies on the first day (see Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraq Crisis Report 72, 6 July 2004).

In Samarra, a violent pro-Saddam demonstration included an arson attack on the town hall. There, intimidation of the police has driven three-quarters of the force leaving their jobs – and in some cases into the ranks of the demonstrators.

Such developments must be put in the perspective of a slight decrease in the intensity of the insurgency in the past ten days. There is no doubt that huge numbers of Iraqis greatly welcome the prospect of a trial of Saddam Hussein. Moreover, in some areas, US patrols have been replaced or at least supplemented by the US-trained Iraqi national guard, a welcome change for many citizens.

Yet even limited indications that Saddam may become an iconic figure for a reborn Iraqi nationalism must be a cause of concern for the country’s authorities. If the insurgency continues, with heavy US military responses in the manner of Fallujah and in parallel with a lengthy trial of Saddam Hussein, it is possible that the former dictator could even regain an element of potency as a symbol of the resistance.

Israel and the Kurds

Behind the daily instability in Iraq lie significant longer-term processes that may impact on the political agenda. The increasing involvement of Israel in Iraq, mentioned in an earlier column in this series, is one of these (see “The intelligence of al-Qaida”, 24 June 2004).

The recent attention on this issue has highlighted the development of closer links between the US military and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), especially the Americans’ procurement of specialist Israeli equipment developed for use against the Palestinians, and the IDF’s sharing their experience of urban warfare (see “From Fallujah to Palestine”, 24 April 2004).

In pursuing these links, US military planners believed that any relevant experience or equipment that might limit US casualties was greatly welcome. They did not appreciate that news of Israeli involvement would have a cumulative impact in Iraq and the wider region - confirming the widely-held view that the US occupation of Iraq was part of an overall Israeli-American policy to redraw the political map of the Middle East.

It is now apparent, with the confirmation that the Israelis are directly training Kurdish military forces in north-east Iraq that Israel’s influence in the region is extensive. The view from Israel is that the US occupation of Iraq is likely to lead to long-term disorder and it is in Israel’s strategic interest to improve the security position of the Iraqi Kurds.

From an Israeli strategic calculation, this move serves four purposes. First, a militarily strong Kurdish entity will resist any threat posed either by any Iraqi civil war or by paramilitary violence from Ba’athist or al-Qaida forces. The Iraqi Kurds have effective militias and could readily solicit Israeli support in the event of their abandonment by the United States.

Second, Israel’s intimacy with Iraq’s Kurds allows it proximate influence in an area bordering the one country it regards as an even greater threat than Iraq – Iran. Israel remains concerned at Iran's nuclear ambitions and would readily pre-empt them if the United States showed any reluctance to do so. The distance of Iran from Israel makes such pre-emption very difficult to undertake; the use of air bases in Kurdish Iraq would overcome that limitation.

Third, Israeli involvement with the Iraqi Kurds gives it the opportunity to cultivate its presence within Kurdish communities in Syria and Iran. In Syria, the Sharon administration would welcome any aid to Kurdish anti-Assad elements, while links with Kurdish Iran could provide Israel with improved intelligence on Iran's nuclear plans.

Fourth, a long-held Israeli dream is to create an economic link between oil-rich Kurdish Iraq and Israel itself, with the ultimate aim of a Mosul-Haifa oil pipeline through pliant Jordan.

Thus, from an Israeli perspective recent developments in Iraq are positive, especially as they show little sign of facilitating Israel’s real worry: a strong independent federal democracy in Iraq. This is also good news for the pro-Israeli neo-conservative elements in Washington.

From Iranian and Arab regional viewpoints, things look very different. For Iran, increasing Israeli involvement on its border will tend to strengthen the more hardline theocratic elements, and is likely to encourage Iran to intensify its efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent. It may also increase Iranian attempts to influence events among Iraq’s Shia community.

For Arab public opinion, the Israeli-Kurdish link in Iraq confirms with even greater force its view that the pattern of recent developments is at root an Israeli-American plan to dominate the region, with the Arab world’s oil resources a key prize.

What of the al-Qaida consortium in all this? In addition to the 145,000 American troops projected to remain in Iraq for years to come, it is now presented with direct Israeli activity as well. It is difficult to imagine a greater “gift” in terms of future recruitment to its cause.

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