On July 11, Pakistani commandoes wiped out the last Islamic extremists at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the nation’s capital. The siege started July 3, aimed at a violent pro-Taliban sect headed by brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Aziz was arrested as he tried to flee the mosque in women’s clothing. Ghazi and most of his followers died in the assault. Meanwhile, at the other end of the region’s arc of conflict, Lebanese Army troops continued their two-month siege of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, where Fatah al-Islam militants, linked to both al-Qaeda and the Syria-Iran axis, are based. Government forces have killed more than 200 of the jihadists so far.
If Pakistan and Lebanon – not the two strongest states in the region – are able to take bold action against terrorists, why is the Congress of the United States so eager to cut and run from a fight with the same radical enemies, in Iraq, where the stakes are much higher?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other antiwar Democrats continue to focus on the sectarian killings, while others on the Left claim the Iraqi people are rising in armed opposition to a U.S.-led occupation. Both of these claims are false on their face. Most of the violence in Iraq is sectarian, with Sunni and Shi’ite religious fanatics killing each other. This is not a rebellion directed at Coalition forces. If there were a true national uprising against American “imperialism” as the Left fantasizes, U.S. casualties would be 10 times higher. It is because most Iraqis want to lead normal lives, with the hope for better days after the demise of Saddam Hussein, that American casualties are so low.
Nor has the level of violence reached that of a true civil war. There are no mass armies in the field contending for control of the country. The only mass outpouring of political activity by the Iraqi people was their participation in the national elections. The insurgents are attempting to terrorize the Iraqi people into submitting again to a violent despotism, but so far they have had more success in terrorizing U.S. Congressmen into fleeing in panic from the fight.
The sectarian violence will only subside when the majority in each Islamic sect turns against the cycle of murder and revenge. But this ongoing violence does not threaten the American position in Iraq. It is a grave error to claim a U.S. “defeat” because of religious gang wars. The change from a hostile regime to an allied government in Baghdad is the American victory that still stands, and is crucial to the future of the entire region.
As the interim report on Iraq released July 12 makes clear, the areas of greatest progress in the country have been accomplished in conjunction with U.S. troops. The American military, with their boots on the ground in local neighborhoods, have won the respect of the people. They are having success working with Iraqi security forces and tribal groups that are tired of the blood-letting fomented by foreign terrorists and subversive agents. It is not the soldiers in Iraq who are failing, but the politicians sitting safe at home who have lost their nerve.
President George W. Bush has stressed Iraq as the central front against al-Qaeda. The terrorists know that Iraq is a more important prize than Afghanistan. It is where American will is most vulnerable to propaganda and domestic political dissent, thus providing al-Qaeda with the better chance to “win.” Even most antiwar Democrats are unwilling to abandon Afghanistan, because that is where al-Qaeda was based on 9/11. But fleeing in terror from Iraq will only embolden al-Qaeda, giving them a victory they do not deserve, and cannot win on their own.
In neither Iraq nor Afghanistan does al-Qaeda have the strength to win on the battlefield. It is a terrorist group, not an army capable of conquering a country. Its primary weapon is the car bomb driven into a marketplace to kill civilians. It’s a brutal and bloody tactic, but also a sign of weakness, as terrorism always is. The Taliban have fallen back on this tactic after their attempts to gain Afghan territory by more conventional combat were defeated by NATO forces.
The real menace in the region is Iran, which, as a national government, has a large population and resource base. With its penetration of the Shi’ite community in Iraq; its support for militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza; and its nuclear ambitions, Iran poses a threat to the entire region. And behind Iran stands China, which provides Tehran with both diplomatic support, and the weapons it uses to arm itself and its militia vanguards operating against other states. If America can be driven back into an isolationist, unprepared state in the wake of a “defeat” in Iraq, Beijing will be the major winner as it continues its “rise” to global power.
On June 19, President Bush again said that “all options are on the table” with Iran, a remark that China’s official People’s Daily newspaper described as “a hint of possible military confrontation.” At a conference at the American Enterprise Institute July 10, retired four-star Army Gen. Jack Keane, who is a senior advisor on Iraq, said that Iran is “assisting all of our opponents – the Shi’ite militia, the Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda.” U.S. Special Forces are intensifying their efforts to hunt down Iranian agents in Iraq.
When the U.S. first invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam’s regime, the Tehran mullahs were frightened into opening nuclear talks with the Europeans to avoid American wrath. But now, Tehran sees the growing pressure in Congress for a retreat, not only from Iraq but from any confrontation with Iran. Iran can thumb its nose at the UN, knowing that without American muscle, nothing decisive can happen. Iran even signed a new set of cooperation agreements with North Korea.
Terrorists may dream of dominating the Middle East, but the China-Iran axis could actually do it. Iraq is one of the world’s most strategic locations. Situated in the heart of the Middle East, on the fault-line between the Sunni and Shi’ite, the fate of this oil-rich land will shape world events for decades to come.
Diplomatic attempts to pull Syria away from Iran will fail in the wake of an American withdrawal. Damascus will want to stay aligned with the rising power, hoping to gain a share of the spoils. The smaller Sunni Arab states are unable to stand up to Iran without American support. And few local leaders will dare risk confronting the new wave of aggressors who will be emboldened by the “forced” retreat of the once feared and respected United States. Who will want to embrace democracy, if the world’s leading democracy demonstrates that liberal reform is a source of weakness rather than of strength?
An American withdrawal from Iraq will not end any of the conflicts in the region. They will continue, but with forces hostile to the United States in the ascendancy. This is the danger that should be at the center of the debate in Washington, but it isn’t.