By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"The United States and Iran have reached a critical crossroads at which the path of potential conciliation rooted in their shared "common concerns", to paraphrase President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's latest letter to Americans, intersects with the path of even greater hostility, which could turn Iraq and the rest of the Middle Eastern landscape into a theater of their power rivalry.
Unfortunately, the latter alternative appears to be gaining, and unless remedial action is taken by both sides, in Tehran and Washington, to arrest the growing momentum toward the "clash of titans", it may not be long before we observe a new realignment of forces in Iraq and beyond, with both sides jockeying for influence and support among the Sunni insurgents in Iraq and beyond.
Within Iraq, the government's tailspin toward a complete collapse has been accentuated by Muqtada al-Sadr's group's withdrawal of support of the government in response to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's decision to meet with US President George W Bush in Amman, thus casting a heavy cloud of uncertainty over Maliki's administration. This is illustrated by a leaked memo by US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, questioning Maliki's "capability". As a result, the chances are that the Amman summit - postponed from Wednesday to Thursday - may be the last for the embattled premier who cannot appease either his domestic or American critics.
Concerning the latter, until now, with a couple of exceptions going back to the summer of 2004, when US forces and Muqtada's Mehdi Army traded blows in Najaf and Karbala, the majority Shi'ites in Iraq have not posed much of an insurgency problem. This much has been confirmed by, among others, the head of Central Command (Centcom), General John Abizaid, in his recent interview with the Columbia Broadcasting System's 60 Minutes.
As for the Iraqi Shi'ites and their present quandary, signs of a more assertive anti-occupation stance on their part point to a growing realization that the best way to avert a costly civil war might, indeed, be none other than to form common cause with the Sunni insurgents against the occupation forces. Switching allegiance from government backers to outright opponents is a distinct possibility that may save the beleaguered Shi'ites from the Sunnis' wrath, yet expose them to the lethal power of the United States.
Who could blame the Shi'ites if they shed their collaborationist behavior and put their military prowess at the disposal of a great nationalist crusade to liberate Iraq? For more than three years, the Shi'ites have vested their hopes on the state-building process, elections and non-violence with regard to the occupation armies. With those hopes increasingly dashed at a time of their growing military strength, the Shi'ites now seem poised to challenge the United States' power directly, with direct assistance from Iran, should the US refuse to set a timetable for withdrawing its forces.
This last scenario (the Shiites joining forces with the "Sunni insurgency" to fight the occupation) is the best scenario possible for Iraq. It will materialize only when Iran finally realizes that it will not be able to cut a deal with the Great Satan at the expense of Iraq.
I really hope that this will happen because it will channel all Iraqi forces towards fighting the occupation, not each other.