Old arguments, new excuses

In his address following two days of congressional testimony by the top two American officials in Iraq, President Bush indicated that there would be no let-up in his determination to prosecute the war for the remainder of his term. He also advanced a different rationale for fighting the war.

“Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: Al Qaeda and Iran,” Bush said.

In 2003, we invaded Iraq to depose a dictator who presumably had weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to us and our allies. Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly disposed of and the weapons turned out to be nonexistent. And despite pre-war suspicions, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, the fighting continued. At that time, the administration said, the enemy was “bitter-enders” and Baath Party hard-liners. Soon the enemy was said to be Sunni insurgents, fearful of being displaced by a long-repressed Shiite majority. They were joined by foreign Islamic extremists who became a new entity, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al Qaeda and its “emirs” were so violent and radical that the Sunnis turned against them and, in an abrupt about-turn, became allied with and armed by the Americans. There are now about 90,000 of these Sunni security forces, and the al Qaeda threat, according to the U.S. military, has been reduced “significantly.”

Meanwhile, various Shiite militias would mount hit-and-run attacks against U.S. forces, largely, it appears, to establish their nationalist and religious credentials, but most of their efforts seemed directed at securing control over the country’s wealth.

That led to the paradox of the Shiite-run national government and the largely Shiite Iraqi army attacking Shiite militias in the vital port of Basra, while the United States, which had not been consulted about the attack, was largely confined to the sidelines.

The picture was further complicated by what Gen. David Petraeus called “special groups,” Shiite radicals armed and financed by Iran. These groups, Petraeus said, now pose the most significant immediate threat.

From the outset, the Bush administration has defined victory as a free and stable Iraq that is an ally in the war on terror. Somehow we’re fighting two enemies — Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite special groups — that didn’t exist five years ago to get to that point.