While all of the media attention has been focused on the Filibuster debate (to go or not to go) and on what the President may or may not discuss in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, there have been a number of significant stories that have slipped under the radar. These stories, at first glance, may appear to be unrelated, but I believe them to be fundamentally linked to the path Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove will attempt to take us down during this critical mid-term election year.

Big surprise: it has nothing to do with health care, and everything to do with Bush’s next front in the war on terror: Iran

The first story was one that we’ve heard before, but it’s one that bears repeating: that our armed forces are stretched thin and are at their breaking point:

[A] new report—paid for by the Pentagon—echoes the recent private grumblings of some top military brass that the rapid deployment of troops to Iraq is in danger of crippling the fighting force that the nation has steadily rebuilt since the shaky post-Vietnam Army of a generation ago. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and West Point graduate who wrote the 136-page report assessing the military’s Iraq strategy, warns that the Army cannot maintain its current pace of operations in Iraq without leaving permanent damage. Plans to trim U.S. troops there this year—now at 138,000, with hopes of reducing that to 100,000 by year’s end—is a tacit acknowledgment that the Army is stretched too thin, he maintains in a section he entitles “The Thin Green Line.” The service’s failure to achieve its recruiting goal in 2005—the first time it has missed it since 1999—and hefty bonuses for soldiers to reenlist are further evidence of the Army’s erosion, he writes.

The top U.S. officer in Iraq said Thursday that his forces, while strained, are not broken. “The forces are stretched,” Army General George Casey said. “I don’t think there’s any question of that. But the Army has been for the last several years going through a modernization strategy that will produce more units and more ready units.” Still, his boss, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, flat-out declared Wednesday that Krepinevich’s study “is just not consistent with the facts.” But as the defense secretary spoke to reporters at the Pentagon, Democrats led by former defense secretary William Perry released a report making similar claims as Krepinevich’s. Today’s Army, the second report concludes, is under enormous strain with potentially “highly-corrosive and potentially long-term effects on the force.”

As I said, a familar story, one we’ve heard anecdotally from veterans of the Iraq war for some time now. In itself, not earthshaking news, but still extremely troubling. What is far more interesting, however, is the manner in which Defense Secretary Rumsfeld chose to respond to these gloomy reports:

(Much more below the fold . . .)

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday disputed reports suggesting that the U.S. military is stretched thin and close to a snapping point from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, asserting “the force is not broken.”

“This armed force is enormously capable,” Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “In addition, it’s battle hardened. It’s not a peacetime force that has been in barracks or garrisons.”

Note the choice of words used by Rummy. This is not just a denial, it’s a denial in force. The troops are not only not broken, they are “battle hardened.” They are not a lazy, lethargic “peacetime force” but a lean, mean fighting machine kind of force. Why those words? Why that characterization? This goes beyond the typical Rumsfeld dismissal of critics who see an over-extension of America’s military. Look at his other remarks:

Rumsfeld said reports suggesting that the U.S. military is close to the breaking point are “just not consistent with the facts.”

“It’s clear that those comments do not reflect the current situation. They are either out of date or just misdirected,” he said.

These are more in line with the typical Rumsfeld rejoinder: that critics don’t have all the information he does, that they are “out of touch” with the true situation, etc. Why did he feel the need to go further?

Two points: one I believe at these statements were not intended solely for domestic consumption, but were aimed at an entirely different audience: the Army itself. Rumsfeld wanted to make it clear that he expects the Army to fight another war if called upon, and no excuses or foot dragging will be permitted.

Second, his rather bellicose statements (not just a “No”, but a “Hell No!”) may have something to do with the next story that caught my eye last week, though the connection between them may, on the surface, appear counterintuitive. That story? It’s the revelation that our military commanders in Iraq are having high level negotiations with various Sunni leaders of the insurgency:

Feb. 6, 2006 issue – American officials in Iraq are in face-to-face talks with high-level Iraqi Sunni insurgents, NEWSWEEK has learned. Americans are sitting down with “senior members of the leadership” of the Iraqi insurgency, according to Americans and Iraqis with knowledge of the talks (who did not want to be identified when discussing a sensitive and ongoing matter). The talks are taking place at U.S. military bases in Anbar province, as well as in Jordan and Syria. “Now we have won over the Sunni political leadership,” says U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. “The next step is to win over the insurgents.” The groups include Baathist cells and religious Islamic factions, as well as former Special Republican Guards and intelligence agents, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks. Iraq’s insurgent groups are reaching back. “We want things from the U.S. side, stopping misconduct by U.S. forces, preventing Iranian intervention,” said one prominent insurgent leader from a group called the Army of the Mujahedin, who refused to be named because of the delicacy of the discussions. “We can’t achieve that without actual meetings.” […]

They have much to discuss. For one, Americans and Iraqi insurgent groups share a common fear of undue Iranian influence in Iraq. “There is more concern about the domination by Iran of Iraq,” says a senior Western diplomat, “and that combination of us being open to them and the dynamics of struggle for domination of violence has come together to get them to want to reach an understanding with us.” Contacts between U.S. officials and insurgents have been criticized by Iraq’s ruling Shiite leaders, many of whom have longstanding ties to Iran and are deeply resented by Sunnis. “We haven’t given the green light to [talks] between the U.S. and insurgents,” says Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, of the Shiite party, called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

This falls into the category of “extremely interesting.” Not that long ago we were getting reports of Shi’ite “death squads”, i.e., elements of the Iraqi Army and police that had been given training and assistance by the US and Britain, and then set loose against the Sunni population in which the insurgency was sheltered. So, why the sudden urge to negotiate with the Sunni insurgency? That would literally entail “switching sides” in what has become a civil war in all but name.<p)

The answer is presented right there in the article: Iran. Iran is quite happy to (a) see Americans fighting the Shi’ites traditional religious rivals in Iraq, (b) have those US forces tied down by and “stretched thin” by such a conflict, all while (c) obtaining influence over the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government through aid and other “assistance.” Despite the public “happy face” the Bush team puts on when describing the situation in Iraq, they have to be concerned that the elections ended with a Shi’a controlled government, one that has allied itself with Iran. They also know that their military options in the Middle East will continue to be limited so long as they must remain committed to suppressing the Sunni minority in Iraq.

Which leads me to the next dot to be connected in last week’s news cycle. Some of you may know that Iran has suffered a rash of recent plane crashes involving, interestingly enough, high ranking members of its military command structure. What you may not have known was that last week, Iranian officials accused the US, Britain and Israel of having a hand in causing those planes to crash:

Iran accused the United States, the United Kingdom and above all Israel of “playing a part in the latest two plane crashes which took place in the country.”

Iranian Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammedi, in a speech he made at a seminar Wednesday, said they have information that these three countries played a role in these crashes.

Purmohammedi claimed “US, British and Israeli secret services want to cause insecurity in Iran” though declining to elaborate further his accusations. […]

Iran [also] made the accusation that “US and UK played a part” in the explosions in the town of Ahvaz where eight people died.

There have long been reports that the US and Britain have been engaged in a “secret war” inside Iran, involving terror attacks by the MEK, an acknowledged terrorist group bent on the overthrow of the Iranian regime, and now given shelter by US authorities inside Iraq. We’ve also seen reports that American and British special forces, and other intelligence assets have been deployed inside Iraq in preparation for a possible military strike. Refer to this diary for more details.

What’s new, is that Iran’s government is beginning to break its silence about these developments, and more openly accuse the US of being behind them. If you look at the earlier stories regarding the plane crashes, no mention was made of any foreign involvement as the cause of these aerial catastrophes. Now that negotiations with Europe and Russia regarding Iran’s nuclear program have fallen through, Iranian officials are clearly no longer willing to remain so circumspect in their public pronouncements.

Which brings me to my last connection, the growing and continued drumbeat regarding the need to attack Iran coming from right wing pundits and broadcasters. There’s no need to provide a comprehensive survey. What I’d like to do is focus on what I consider the touchstone for ferreting out Bush Administration plans well before they are ever formally proposed: Fox News, and in particular, its most popular pundit Bill O’Reilly.

If one man could be considered emblematic as a spokeman for the dissemination of propaganda produced by the Bush administration, O’Reilly is that man. Here’s what he had to say about Iran back on January 10th:

O’REILLY: Here’s the important story of the day that no one will tell you about. The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog program, Mohamed ElBaradei, has told the United Nations that Iran will begin uranium enrichment work, contradicting previous statements from the mullahs who run Iran. So look, it’s just a matter of time, ladies and gentlemen, before we have to bomb that country.

Not convinced? Here’s more from his website, regarding O’Reilly’s TV program on January 27th (scroll down):

Unresolved Problems Segment
The threat from Iran

Guest: Joseph Sirencione, Georgetown University

A majority of Americans favor military action against Iran if it pursues nuclear weapons. Foreign affairs observer Joseph Sirencione claimed Iran is years away from being a nuclear threat. “This is not a case where anyone is telling us there is an imminent threat. It is a threat, but at a very basic level, and negotiations are showing some promise. A military strike would probably accelerate their nuclear program in the long run because Iran would then go all-out.” The Factor agreed that a peaceful settlement is preferable, although the military option has to be on the table. “If Iran does not listen to reason, there is going to have to be a confrontation with that country. Israel is never going to allow Iran to have a nuclear device.”

I didn’t watch that segment, but O’Reilly’s conclusion after speaking to a guest expert (who clearly indicated that Iran was years away from making a bomb), is telling: “If Iran does not listen to reason, there is going to have to be a confrontation with that country.”

So, what does it all mean? Here’s my take. Bush (or Cheney and Rumsfeld — no difference really) desperately want a war with Iran. That’s long been a goal of theirs, as PNAC publications will bear out. However, they know that further military action will not be feasible if US public opinion continues to turn against the use of force in the Middle East. Thus they have to counter any suggestion that our military has been overextended as a result of the war in Iraq. In addition, they have to begin to create a public groundswell for such a war based on fear of Iran’s nuclear program, one that doesn’t appear to come solely from the White House (thus the use of O’Reilly and other organs of the Mighty Righty Wurlitzer).

Further, they have to know (because I’m sure some of their military planners have told them this) that any attack on Iran will require, at a minimum, a cease fire with the Iraqi insurgents. To attack Iran without first getting all our ducks lined up with the Sunnis in Iraq would be suicidal for our troops stationed there. By the way, this also explains the reports a few weeks ago that Cheney had solicited the deployment of Egyptian troops to Iraq to act as a “peacekeeping force” (essentially a buffer between the Sunni and Shi’ite populations and their various armed contingents). Such a deployment, while probably not a “deal breaker” would certainly free up more US forces for whatever attack against Iran may be in the works.

Once you take a look at everything that’s happening it really isn’t that hard to read which way the wind is blowing, is it? Expect to see some further mention of the “Iranian Menace” by Bush in the State of the Union address tomorrow night. It may not be much, but as we all know, even as little as 16 words can make a big difference.

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