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Thursday, May 27

Militias threaten to split Iraq, entrench U.S. troops

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Letting Iraq break apart along sectarian lines never has been an option in the Bush plan.

But it's now a sobering possibility, with major implications for American troops and an eventual U.S. exit strategy.

There are worrisome signs Iraq's fractious Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish militias, deployed now along sensitive religious and ethnic fronts, intend to stay active as U.S. civil authorities attempt to bring Iraqis together under a sovereign government this summer.

The Kurdish peshmerga forces control northern Iraq. The Shiite militias have held off U.S. forces in the south for two months. Sunni Baath Party members from Saddam Hussein's disbanded army now control regions west of Baghdad, having fought U.S. Marines to a standoff there.

``There is a real danger here with these large, strong ethnically based organizations,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a military operations expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. ``The bigger they get the more dangerous they are, and right now we're moving in the wrong direction in that trend.''

Militia sizes vary, with the Kurdish peshmerga probably topping the list with 100,000 men - not much smaller than the U.S. contingent in Iraq of 138,000 troops.

For now, the militia problem means extended deployments for U.S. troops.

The Army's 1st Armored Division from Fort Knox, Ky., was ordered to remain in Iraq for an additional 90 days this spring specifically to combat the Shiite militias in Najaf and Karbala, south of Baghdad.

``I think that the determination was made, from the president all the way down to the commanders on the ground, that the situation is such that we probably need to have additional troops stay for some time longer,'' said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, second in command on the ground in Iraq. Many of the casualties that made April the deadliest month of the war for Americans, with at least 136 troops killed, came as U.S. forces fought Sunni and Shiite rebels across Iraq.

If these militias clash with each other in power struggles as U.S. civil authorities attempt to establish an Iraqi government in the coming months - a critical phase of the still-vague Bush exit strategy - the Iraq campaign could implode in civil war.

That would almost certainly prompt neighboring Turkey and Iran to rush in and protect their interests, destabilizing the entire Middle East.

If the militias feel compelled to turn on American troops in a concerted wave of Iraqi nationalism to drive out what they perceive to be an occupation with no end, U.S. troops could find themselves back in major combat operations, if not in full retreat.

The U.S. approach to dealing with the militias has been inconsistent.

When Baghdad fell in April 2003, U.S. forces ordered the militias to disarm. After weeks of crime and violence, the militias re-emerged to fill the security void, which U.S. authorities tolerated.

April saw that plan backfire with the Sunni and Shiite rebellions led by well-armed militias that remain a threat.

After intense fighting between U.S. Marines and Sunnis in Fallujah following the murder and burning of four American contract workers there, the U.S. authorities negotiated a settlement that left many of the Sunni combatants in charge of patrolling the city.

Shiite militias battling U.S. troops in southern Iraq, under the leadership of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have struck a tentative cease-fire agreement with U.S. authorities that would leave them armed and intact.

The Kurds would like to remain autonomous in oil-rich northern Iraq as they have been since the end of 1991 Persian Gulf War and they have the peshmerga to back their aspirations.

When some experts look at these three situations, they see the unmistakable beginnings of a partitioned state.

Modern Iraq is an artificial construct. For centuries the Ottomans ruled the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds separately. But in 1921, the colonial British created modern Iraq by cobbling the three groups together under the rule of a puppet monarch to create a convenient source of oil for England.

``The reality is that Iraq is today, and has been for hundreds of years, not really one state, but three separate regions,'' said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.