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Misreading Iraq, Again

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George W. Bush and his neoconservative supporters are hailing some signs of cooperation between Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and U.S. forces in rooting out al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province as proof that Bush’s military occupation of Iraq is finally working and should not be ended by Congress.

“Finally,” wrote neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on July 13, “after four terribly long years, we know what works.” He, like Bush, cited the Anbar example as reason to reject growing public and congressional demands for a prompt U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

But the Anbar evidence could be read almost exactly the opposite way: that it is the growing belief among Sunnis that the American occupation is nearing its end that has caused some of them to view the U.S. military as a lesser evil and position themselves for what they perceive as the next phase of the conflict.

Anticipating a U.S. departure, these Sunnis are now more concerned about defending Sunni territory against the Shiite-dominated government army as well as eradicating al-Qaeda extremists whose indiscriminate killings have offended Iraqis of all stripes.

In other words, believing that the U.S. public and Congress will force Bush’s hand on military withdrawal, these Sunnis see the need to secure American armaments to match up against their Shiite rivals (if an intensified civil war should ensue), and they see the hyper-violent foreign jihadists as a threat to the province’s traditional Sunni power structure.

From this angle, the Anbar developments underscore why it's a good idea for the U.S. government to make clear its intention to leave Iraq, not what Bush and neocons see, another reason to extend the occupation indefinitely.

Indeed, this apparent shift in Sunni interests has long been anticipated by Iraq War critics if the U.S. occupation were to end. They have cited evidence that what al-Qaeda feared most in Iraq was a U.S. military withdrawal that would eliminate its most valuable recruitment pitch (Bush's occupation of Arab land) and diminish any value al-Qaeda fighters might have for Iraqi Sunnis.

This al-Qaeda fear was expressed by the group’s leaders, holed up along the Pakistani-Afghan border, in letters to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The letters warned that al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq might collapse if the United States left, removing the glue holding together the fragile coalition between foreign jihadists and Iraqi nationalists.

That was why a July 2005 letter attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Zarqawi to start talking up the idea of an Islamic “caliphate,” so the young jihadists, drawn to Iraq to fight the Americans, wouldn’t just “lay down their weapons and silence the fighting zeal” once the Americans departed.

The “Zawahiri letter,” which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, also predicted that an American departure would force the depleted force of al-Qaeda fighters into a desperate battle simply to carve out an enclave inside Iraq.

In December 2005 letter, another top aide to Osama bin Laden, known as “Atiyah,” lectured Zarqawi on the need to act more respectfully toward Iraqi Sunni leaders so al-Qaeda could begin addressing its need to put down deeper roots in Iraq.

In pursuit of that goal, Atiyah also saw the importance of keeping the U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq. “Prolonging the war is in our interest,” Atiyah wrote in a letter that was discovered by U.S. forces after Zarqawi’s death in June 2006. [See’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]

False Hope

But Bush and his neocon backers – in a pattern that has been repeated since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 – are interpreting the modest inroads that U.S. commanders have made with Sunni leaders in Anbar and, to a lesser extent, Diyala Province as a reason to continue the U.S. occupation indefinitely.

From the beginning of the war, every time a silver lining could be spotted in an otherwise dark cloud, Bush and the neocons have exploited the development for maximum political advantage back in Washington and as justification to extend the war in Iraq.

So, when Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad statue was pulled down in April 2003, that was cited as proof the Iraqis favored the U.S. military presence; when Hussein’s two sons were killed and the dictator was captured, the U.S. mission creep edged further toward an ambitious nation-building project; when millions of Shiites turned out for elections, that was seen as another endorsement of the U.S. military presence rather than a self-interested move to consolidate Shiite power over the Sunnis.

At each juncture, Bush could have cited the positive development as the moment for the United States to start heading home. Instead, Bush seized on these “turning points” to berate his domestic critics and to dig the United States more deeply into Iraq.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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