The Mess

For two months, the Coalition and the Mahdi Army fought pitched battles around Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines. Iraq’s senior Shiite clerics and politicians, all of whom saw al-Sadr as a threat, assured Bremer of their support and did nothing to help him. Iraq’s Shiites were the prime beneficiary of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, but America’s stock in Iraq had fallen so low that only Iraq’s Kurds were prepared to stand with the United States against al-Sadr. By May 2004, al-Sadr’s insurgency so disrupted US supply lines in Iraq that Bremer considered ordering food rationing for the thousands of Americans working in Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone. A year after liberating Iraq, the world’s only superpower was finding it difficult to feed the Americans in charge of the occupation.

Today, Moqtada al-Sadr controls one of the largest factions within the victorious United Iraq Alliance (UIA), the coalition of Shiite religious parties that won the December 2005 national elections. Nor is he the only member of the Alliance likely to side with Iran if war comes. SCIRI—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—is Iraq’s largest political party. It was founded in Tehran in 1982, and its name gives an accurate idea of its politics. The Iranians also created, trained, and apparently still fund SCIRI’s military wing, the Badr Corps, which has over 12,000 troops. Iraq’s interior minister, Bayan Jabr, is the former head of the Badr Corps, whose members he has helped place throughout Iraq’s national police. Dawa, the third major element in the UIA, also has close relations with Iran.

With the US Army vastly overextended in Iraq and Iran’s friends in power in Baghdad, the Iranians apparently feel confident that the United States will take no action to stop them if they try to make a nuclear weapon. This is only one little-noticed consequence of America’s failure in Iraq. We invaded Iraq to protect ourselves against nonexistent WMDs and to promote democracy. Democracy in Iraq brought to power Iran’s allies, who are in a position to ignite an uprising against American troops that would make the current problems with the Sunni insurgency seem insignificant. Iran, in effect, holds the US hostage in Iraq, and as a consequence we have no good military or nonmilitary options in dealing with the problem of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Unlike the 1979 hostage crisis, we did this to ourselves.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush told his Iraq critics, “Hindsight is not wisdom and second-guessing is not a strategy.” His comments are understandable. Much of the Iraq fiasco can be directly attributed to Bush’s shortcomings as a leader. Having decided to invade Iraq, he failed to make sure there was adequate planning for the postwar period. He never settled bitter policy disputes among his principal aides over how postwar Iraq would be governed; and he allowed competing elements of his administration to pursue diametrically opposed policies at nearly the same time. He used jobs in the Coalition Provisional Authority to…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.