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You Can't Tell the Players in Iraq without a Scorecard

02.27.2008 06:49 | DISPATCHES

Years ago, when Bosnia-Serbia-Kosovo was aflame, I found myself tuning out the conflict because of difficulty tracking all the warring factions. Afterward, I read a book on the subject, Michael Parenti's "To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia" (Verso, 2002). However illuminating, after about a week I'd forgotten who was who. My only consolation was that 99 percent of Americans understood even less.

When the US invaded Iraq, the protagonists stood in sharp contrast. Then the Shiites and Sunnis divided and replicated. You hear the term "Balkanization" applied to Iraq. True, it may split into smaller states. But the expression can also be used to describe how the division into factions results in a political scene too confusing for the average person.

Like most Americans, I was unable to tell the players in Iraq without a scorecard and stopped trying to make sense of it. Iran and Pakistan, however labyrinthine their affairs, seemed easy in comparison.

But we no longer have an excuse to tune out Iraq on the grounds that it makes our heads spin. In the past week, two articles -- one first-hand reporting, the other an analysis -- provide us with that much-needed scorecard.

In his Rolling Stone piece, "The Myth of the Surge," Nir Rosen relies on his facility with the  Arab language to interview and eavesdrop on members of the Sunni "Awakening." Excerpt:

"To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias. . . . the strategy of the surge seems simple: to buy off every Iraqi in sight. All told, the U.S. is now backing more than 600,000 Iraqi men in the security sector. . . . the Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. 'Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems,' as U.S. strategists like to say."
Meanwhile, in his Nation piece, "Is Iran Winning the Iraq War?," security analyst Robert Dreyfuss explains the extent to which Iran has influenced events in Iraq. Excerpt:
"Despite its very public saber-rattling against Iran. . . the United States has spent most of the past five years in a de facto alliance with Iran in support of the Shiite-led (and US-installed) regime in Baghdad. . . . Taking advantage of the political vacuum created by the US destruction of Saddam Hussein's government, Tehran has established a vast presence, both overt and covert, in Iraq."
Money quote: "'The American military occupation of Iraq has facilitated an Iranian political occupation of Iraq,' says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia." After reading these two articles, you'll finally have a clear picture of who the players are. And how, in small wars, the original intent becomes diluted or perverted. As usual, local war lords wind up in the driver's seat.


Meanwhile, it's not quite as difficult to distinguish between the actors in Afghanistan. But the conflict is at least as futile, as Elizabeth Rubin demonstrates in her dramatic and tragic piece in the recent New York Times Sunday magazine, "Battle Company Is Out There." American troops, many of whom are only able to contain their rage with the use of anti-depressants, try to free the hostile Korengal province of Taliban and al Qaeda. Their tours are a cruel-and-unusual 15 months with 18 days off; one soldier is on his sixth tour.

In the thick of the action herself, Ms. Rubin shows their captain making decisions on the fly about endangering the lives of civilians. She's produced as fine a piece of war journalism as you'll ever read.


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