Middle East


Is Iraq Bush's Vietnam?

Is Iraq Bush's Vietnam?
A U.S. army reconnaissance helicopter roves over a neighborhood in Kufa as it secures the area prior to the passage of a convoy on April 20, 2004.  (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP-Getty Images)

On April 5th, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) told the Brookings Institution that "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam" adding that "Iraq was never a threat to the United States and that Bush took the country to war under false pretenses, giving Al-Qaeda two years to regroup and plant terrorist cells throughout the world."

Is Iraq Bush's Vietnam? Not so far. In Vietnam, the U.S. suffered 47,369 battle deaths, 10,799 other deaths, while an additional 153,303 U.S. troops were wounded. In Iraq, as of April 6th, a total of 623 Americans had died and an additional 3,457 U.S. troops had been wounded.

Iraq is home to 16 million Shiites and around 7 million Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle area, north and west of Baghdad, including cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Baqubah, has been the most volatile. Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had appealed to the Shiites of Iraq to remain "patient with U.S. troops" and "to oppose anti-U.S. violence." Most Shiite areas, as a consequence, remained relatively calm. But then, on March 28th, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority shut down Al Hawsa for 60 days. Al Hawsa's publishers were accused of "inciting violence against coalition troops."

In walks Moqtada al-Sadr, a 30-year old, firebrand anti-U.S. Shiite cleric. Al Hawsa's publishers are al-Sadr's followers and al-Sadr commands the Jaish al-Mahdi, the 'Army of the Hidden Imam'. Moqtada al-Sadr inherited a large following from his father Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr (who was assassinated by Saddam in 1999). Moqtada is influenced more by Iranian ayatollahs than by the Iraqi ones and is a believer in the Khomeini's doctrine of vilayat-al-faqih or 'rule by clerics' (Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani of Iraq supports direct elections while Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran prescribes rule by the clergy).

To be certain, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, and the undisputed spiritual leader, is Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad al-Sistani. Grand Ayatollah Sistani is against the doctrine of vilayat-al-faqih and preaches abstinence for clerics from direct politics. Sistani also remains an adamant supporter of direct elections and is opposed to the mostly Sunni, but secular, Baath Party. So is Bush. Sistani could not have toppled Saddam without Bush. Sistani now wants Iraq to become stable and peaceful. So does Bush.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is the other Shiite cleric who matters. Abdul Aziz heads the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution and is backed by the al-Badr Brigade. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, Abdul Aziz's older brother, was assassinated last year. Abdul Aziz has closely allied himself with Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

Iraq has a total of four living grand ayatollahs: Grand Ayatollahs al-Sistani, al-Najafi, al-Hakim and al-Fayadh. Al-Najafi and al-Fayadh hardly ever speak on political issues. Al-Sistani and al-Hakim do not endorse an all-out uprising against the occupying forces (at least not at this stage). All four grand ayatollahs have time and again counseled the 16 million Iraqi Shiites "to remain patient with foreign troops."

Vietnam is a bad analogy. The Vietnam War was in essence a proxy war between the U.S. on the one side and the U.S.S.R. and the People's Republic of China on the other side. The Vietcong guerrillas received regular supplies of munitions and troops from the U.S.S.R. as well as China, while South Vietnam was fully backed by the U.S. (and her allies, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Korea and the Philippines). In the case of Iraq, surrounded by Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey, there is very little, if any, munitions or troops for either the Sunni 'insurgents' or the Shiite militias.

Moqtada al-Sadr is young and is considered a 'radical' by the conservative Najaf-based clerical hierarchy. Grand Ayatollahs al-Sistani, al-Najafi, al-Hakim and al-Fayadh all have outstanding scholarly credentials and all favor a quietist approach to politics. Moqtada, in his explicit anti-U.S. rhetoric, has not only challenged the U.S. but also the grand ayatollahs. Moqtada seems to have overplayed his hand. Ultimately, Iraqi Shiites are going to listen to their grand ayatollahs and Iraqi politics will eventually be dominated by the grand ayatollahs. It's the grand ayatollahs who will decide if Iraq is to become "Bush's Vietnam" or not.