Remember Iraq?

"Trust that Iraq will be the graveyard for terrorism and terrorists for the good of all humanity," said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an address to a joint session of Congress that went reasonably well despite some grumbling in advance. "Iraq is the front line in this struggle, and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vain," he declared.

The visit by Maliki to Washington this week served to remind those whose attention has been understandably diverted by the attention paid to the Israeli-Lebanese war that the United States military is still heavily involved in Iraq, and that things aren’t going all that well there. Indeed, one of the reasons the United States government has "stood on the sidelines" and implicitly allowed the Israelis to do what they will – which has turned out to be something other than a slam-dunk – is not only that 130,000 troops are rather occupied in Iraq, but that those military personnel could rather quickly be put in even more danger if the U.S. decided to take direct action against Iran, the putative sponsor of Hezbollah.

The Iraqi prime minister could offer little more than noble sentiments to Congress. He did endorse the curious notion that Iraq is the front line in the vaporous "war on terrorism," which must have pleased the Bush speechwriters (who might as well have written it themselves), without noting that to the extent this is true, it is so because the U.S. invasion made the country a magnet for ambitious terrorists, foreign and domestic. While speaking bravely, however, Maliki glossed over some of the serious problems his country faces in the short, medium, and probably long run.

How Things Change

Six weeks ago, when President Bush paid a surprise visit to Baghdad after the death of terrorist leader Musab al-Zarqawi, things looked considerably brighter. Maliki had finished forming a government in Baghdad and had a plan for subduing violence in the country’s capital.

Since then things have deteriorated severely. Curfews and beefed-up Iraqi police activities not only haven’t quelled the violence, the violence has gotten worse. Last month, according to a UN report, 100 Iraqis a day were killed. And the violence has become more sectarian – Shia Muslims killing Sunnis and vice versa rather than attacks by al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters. Many observers believe the country is on the verge of civil war, or may already have slipped into it.

The decision by President Bush to transfer up to 4,000 U.S. troops (and the same number of Iraqi troops) to Baghdad from other parts of the country is an acknowledgment that Prime Minister Maliki’s plan is a failure. Whether those additional troops can get the job done is far from assured, and moving them could open the door to more violence in other parts of the country.

In short, though one can always hold out hope for the long run, the concept of Iraq as a model democracy capable of inspiring democratic change in other parts of the Middle East is in tatters.

One potentially encouraging sign – that Maliki runs an independent government rather than being a complete U.S. puppet – also has its downside from the administration’s perspective. The Iraqi government has denounced Israel as the aggressor – which may be true, although I’m still ambivalent – in the current conflict with Hezbollah and refuses to characterize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The Iraqi government wants the ability to try U.S. soldiers accused of crimes against Iraqi citizens in Iraqi courts rather than U.S. military courts. Such disagreements could make it difficult for the U.S. and Iraq to coordinate strategies.

Both President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki seemed unusually somber in their press conference held before the speech to Congress. Perhaps this suggests that they grasp the seriousness of the situation. It remains to be seen whether they have a strategy with much chance of success.

Things Fall Apart

Even as events in Lebanon have overshadowed news reports, the situation in Iraq appears to be deteriorating as Sunni and Shia Muslims kill one another in increasing numbers. Just before traveling to Washington, Maliki pleaded with the country’s sectarian militias and criminal gangs to halt the violence. No wonder he was concerned.

On Monday, July 17, suspected Sunni gunmen rampaged through a market area in a Shia neighborhood in the town of Mahmoudiya, killing at least 48 civilians and wounding scores more. The attack was said to be retaliation for a July 9 attack by Shia in a Sunni neighborhood that killed some 50 civilians. A single attack on Tuesday killed at least 40 people, and 20 employees of the Sunni Endowment, which administers mosques, were kidnapped.

A bimonthly report issued by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), estimated there were more than 5,800 civilian deaths in May and June and 14,000 since the beginning of this year. The trend, unfortunately, is upward. People are being shot for wearing tennis shorts or other "unacceptable" clothes. Homosexuals are targeted for death. An increasing number of people with means are simply leaving Iraq, leading to a "brain drain" and increasing power for extremists among those left behind.

The word "civil war" is fraught with emotional baggage and somewhat imprecise. But it is being used with increasing frequency by ordinary Iraqis interviewed by news media about the increasing violence between Muslim sects. Some slaughters of members of opposing sects are carried out by people in Iraqi army or police uniforms, and while some incidents reflect stolen or counterfeited uniforms, there is little doubt that at least some of the atrocities have been committed by official government security forces whose job in a better world would be to prevent such violence.

What seems to have happened, especially since the February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, is that the fighting on the ground, which at some points in the past could have been characterized as largely resisting foreign fighters and Ba’ath Party remnants, has increasingly become a sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict. This changing character of the conflict puts U.S. military people smack in the middle of a conflict few of them can understand, in which it is difficult to tell which is which, and in which it is dangerous, tactically and politically, to take sides. It verges on cruelty to ask young soldiers to engage in this kind of duty.

Morale Problems

The daily violence, which Iraqi security forces (those not implicated themselves) can’t control and which U.S. forces would probably not be able to control even with several times the current contingent of 130,000 troops, breeds increasing resentment of the United States for failing to establish conditions in which a modicum of peace can flourish. This may be unfair – even if the U.S. is the sole superpower, it is not Superman – but when the military forces of one country occupy another country, they’re going to be blamed when things go badly. And U.S. troops are a target and a motive for some terrorists.

A recent Washington Post article reported from the ground in Iraq suggests strongly that many U.S. troops understand this and are being affected by it. Reporter Joshua Partlow interviewed soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division on the base and on patrol. One staff sergeant, asked about morale, pondered the question for more than an hour, then came back with, "Think of what you hate most about your job. Then think of doing what you hate most for five straight hours, every single day, sometimes twice a day, in 120-degree heat. Then ask how morale is."

A 28-year-old, a former backup fullback at Baylor University, put it succinctly: "It sucks. Honestly, it just feels like we’re driving around waiting to get blown up. That’s the most honest answer I could give you. You lose a couple friends and it gets hard." A sergeant and squad leader said, "No one wants to be here, you know, no one is truly enthused about what we do."

Even Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic, which has generally supported the war, in an informative and sensitive piece, shows unusual understanding of the difficulties military grunts face when their higher-echelon and civilian commanders don’t seem to have much in the way of coherent objectives beyond "staying the course," let alone a strategy or plan.

The fallout is beginning to be felt in Washington, where Republican congressmen facing tough reelection bids – notably Christopher Shays of Connecticut, Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, and Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania – are distancing themselves from the administration and wondering aloud, as Rep. Gutknecht did, whether "staying the course" is politically sustainable.

All this should at least precipitate a serious discussion, across party lines, as to when the United States should start to cut its losses by reducing the numbers of troops and letting the Iraqis handle – perhaps poorly at first and perhaps poorly for years to come – the sectarian divisions that have split their country from its inception.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).