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Iraq and the Special Theory of Relativity

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

You can't tell the enemy in Iraq anymore without a scorecard.

When the United States invaded Iraq five years ago, the enemy was Saddam Hussein and his Baathists. When Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, respectively the U.S. commander and the ambassador to Iraq, came to testify to Congress last year, the enemy was al-Qaeda in Iraq. Yesterday, Petraeus and Crocker returned to Congress to report that the enemy had changed once again.

We are now fighting Iran-backed "special groups" in Iraq.

"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus testified.

The phrase "special groups" had a benign sound to it, like "special education" or "special sauce" or "special of the day." But don't be fooled. "The special groups' activities have, in fact, come out in greater relief during the violence of recent weeks," Petraeus told the senators. "It is they who have the expertise to shoot rockets more accurately, shoot mortars more accurately and to employ some of the more advanced material . . . that have not just killed our soldiers and Iraqi soldiers but also have been used to assassinate two southern governors in past months and two southern police chiefs."

Now, isn't that special?

The rapid proliferation of enemies in Iraq, special and otherwise, evidently confused Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and that party's presumptive presidential nominee. Not for the first time in recent weeks, he confused Sunni Muslims with Shiite Muslims.

"Do you still view al-Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?" he asked Petraeus.

Petraeus said the group was "not as major a threat as it was."

"Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites overall?" McCain persisted.

"No," Petraeus agreed.

Indeed, al-Qaeda is Sunni -- a fact McCain recalled an instant after the word "Shiites" escaped his lips. "Or Sunnis or anybody else," he quickly added.

Sequels are rarely as good as the original, and Petraeus's return to Washington proved no exception. The Code Pink hecklers were back to harass Petraeus, this time painted as corpses and singing new songs ("John McCain, you are insane"). Petraeus and Crocker offered the same type of tempered happy talk ("Significantly better!" "Major step forward!"). And lawmakers on both sides, while more inclined to scold the witnesses this time, knew that there wasn't much they could do about their objections as long as President Bush remains in office. The only difference was that the sequel had a different villain. This time, Iran got 105 mentions before the Armed Services Committee, compared with only 83 for al-Qaeda.

Even the prospect of a showdown among the three presidential candidates -- Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and McCain all got to ask questions of the witnesses -- failed to materialize. The stretched-out nature of the day -- two hearings that lasted a total of eight hours -- meant that there was no opportunity for direct exchanges between the three would-be future presidents, who showed only slightly more patience for detail than the current occupant of the office.

Within two hours, McCain left the Armed Services hearing for good -- less than halfway through. Clinton held out for nearly 3 1/2 hours, and later, next door at the Foreign Relations Committee's hearing, Obama held out for three -- though both sustained themselves by chewing gum and by taking frequent glances at clocks in the room.

With the presidential candidates failing to provide the expected entertainment, the legislators and witnesses busied themselves in a discussion about the new enemy: the special groups.

"Iran has fueled the violence," Petraeus said, "in a particularly damaging way through its lethal support to the special groups." The recent "flare-up," Petraeus said, "highlighted the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming and directing the so-called special groups."

Crocker, too, said the "special groups" pose a major threat to the Iraqi government.

Of course, the new focus on the "special groups" also served to highlight the fact that the American presence in Iraq is creating new and special enemies. But McCain adopted the "special groups" phrase, too. "We must press ahead against . . . the Iranian-backed special groups," he said.

The senator asked Petraeus what could be done about attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad. Petraeus answered that the "Iraqi security forces are going to have to come to grips with . . . the special groups."

The special talk caught the attention of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). "Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?" Lieberman asked.

"It certainly is," Petraeus assured him.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) asked about the violence in Basra. Petraeus blamed the 107mm rockets of the "special groups." Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) asked about the Mahdi Army. Petraeus mentioned the "special groups." Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) asked about Iran. Crocker invoked the "special groups." Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also got the "special group" rate from the witnesses.

Petraeus, after a brief lunch break, went before the Foreign Relations Committee -- and did the whole thing again. "Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus repeated, one of 17 mentions of the "special groups" in that hearing.

This time it was Obama's turn to be puzzled by the many enemies in Iraq.

"Do we feel confident that the Iraqi government is directing these -- this aid to these special groups?" he asked.

"There's no question in our minds," Crocker answered, gently advising the candidate that it was, in fact, the Iranian government, and not the Iraqi.

It was a special moment.

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