For a little while, at least, it seemed the situation in Iraq would take a back seat to domestic issues in the U.S. presidential campaign this year. What a difference a week makes.
Late last month two events took place within a matter of days that quickly sent the U.S.-led occupation spiraling out of control and into the bloodiest period yet, including during the invasion last year. Of course, they also pushed Iraq back to the forefront of the political debate in this country.
In the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, a mob lynched four American combatants. (While they were not soldiers, they were armed contractors acting in a capacity that defines them as combatants under the Geneva Conventions). The sheer brutality of the killings and the vividness of video of the incident shocked the nation.
In response, on April 5, U.S. Marines launched Operation Vigilant Resolve in hopes of capturing the city that they had bypassed on the initial push into Baghdad more than a year ago. Intense fighting broke out as the Marines moved in, and hundreds of Iraqi civilians died despite a cease-fire declared just four days later.
Just east of Fallujah, in the capital, Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority touched off an even more widespread wave of violence by shuttering a controversial Shi'ite newspaper called Al Hawza.
Enraged at having their newly granted right to a free press curtailed, thousands of protesters gathered outside the paper's locked office within hours of the closure. The protests quickly spread and lasted for days; and when more than a dozen demonstrators were killed by coalition forces in the Shi'a holy city Najaf, the protests became an intifada.
At least, that's what the firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr called it when members of his personal militia and other armed Shi'ites rose up almost simultaneously across heavily Shi'ite southern Iraq and in a Shi'ite neighborhood in Baghdad. Al Sadr's forces quickly captured several cities, including Najaf.
The situation then went from worse to even worse for the coalition as Sunnis and Shi'ites joined together to violently resist the occupation.
While no fighting at all would obviously be best for everyone involved, at least the two Muslim factions are fighting a common enemy (even though that enemy is us) rather than one another. As Yale Law School Professor Amy Chou points out in her book, World On Fire, when an economically dominant minority — the Sunnis who reaped the benefits of Saddam Hussein's rule — lose power, genocidal bloodbaths often result, as in Indonesia, Rwanda and the Balkans. As bad have things have gotten in Iraq lately, at least this worst-case scenario seems less likely than ever.
Although not as bad as it could be, the state of affairs in Iraq has never been worse for the Bush Administration. The June 30 deadline for the handover of sovereignty to an interim government of uncertain composition seems less realistic with each passing day. Missing it would be a disaster for President Bush's election campaign.
In light of this, Bush took the unusual step of holding a live prime-time news conference April 13. It didn't go well. On television, he seemed shifty and nervous, with his feet dancing a slow-motion jig behind the podium. He refused to apologize for or — in a terribly uncomfortable non-response to a particularly pointed question — even identify any mistakes his administration made in Iraq or in their response to terrorist threats in the months before 9/11.
This is especially absurd in light of almost every other piece of information coming out of the White House last week. In terms of Iraq, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld expressed surprise at the newly heightened violence, indicating that he had expected the occupation to be welcomed with open arms and had no standing plan to deal with other contingencies.
With respect to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush continues to claim that there had been no way to know that Al Qaeda planned to attack New York and Washington, D.C., with hijacked airplanes. This despite information from documents such as the Presidential Daily Briefing of Aug. 6, 2001 indicating that Bin Laden wanted to directly strike the United States, New York and Washington were targets and terror suspects were learning to fly jumbo jets in American flight schools without learning how to take off or land.
The president and his staff are foundering under the concurrent pressure of a new, deadlier war in Iraq and the 9/11 commission at home. Unfortunately, the only other currently viable option, presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, has thus far failed to seize this opportunity to distance himself from the failures of the past three years and present a distinctive vision for the future.
In fact, by press time, his most recent comment on Iraq had been to state that the United States needs more troops in Iraq. This is precisely the Bush Administration's position, and it flies in the face of resentment over the U.S.-led occupation.
Kerry urges approaching the United Nations for help, but this again fails to sufficiently differentiate his Iraq policy from the current one, under which Bush has called for a new Security Council resolution. Surely the Democrats learned from 2000 that having a platform too similar to that of their opponents is a recipe for disaster.
Which brings me back, yet again, to home state hero U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Cleveland). Despite having conceded the nomination to the senator from Massachusetts, Kucinich has stayed in the race and continues to gain grassroots support. In recent communications with his supporters, he has likened himself to a tugboat hoping to swing the party toward his vision for America.
That vision involves immediately handing over control of Iraq to the United Nations and security to a U.N. force that the U.S. pays for but which won't involve any U.S. forces. Because of the resentment and even hatred engendered by the occupation so far, the Democrats' acceptance of this plan or something like it might be the only way out of the deadly quagmire in Iraq. It might be Kerry's only way into the White House as well.
Joshua C. Robinson writes monthly about the presidential campaign for CityBeat.