Blowing Opportunities

There’s not much point denying it, even though many people who have long opposed this stupid war might want to do so. One of the reasons, of course, as renegade neocon Francis Fukuyama wrote recently (in the Wall Street Journal, of all places!), is that if you do say that Iraq has become more stable, war supporters immediately claim that you’re conceding that they were right all along. But their intellectual dishonesty shouldn’t lead us to the same error.

So it’s true that as of about now violence and attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government troops and other security forces have declined dramatically over the past several months. Iraq is a safer place for ordinary people. The major questions revolve around why this has come to pass and how long-lasting the improvement is likely to be.

Is it due to the "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. troops, the counterinsurgency tactics implemented by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and those extra troops, the "Anbar Awakening" among Sunni tribal leaders that began before the surge, or anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision, perhaps at the behest of Iran, perhaps because he’s trying to change his approach as he contemplates being a political actor rather than a pure troublemaker, to order his militia to observe a cease-fire?

Is it because Baghdad has effectively been "ethnically cleansed," such that there are very few mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods anymore, and the more sectarian neighborhoods are divided from one another by concrete walls, so there are fewer opportunities for random or opportunistic violence or attacks? Or does the relative quiet just indicate that most people in Iraq are getting tired of all the violence and are finding ways to avoid it? Simple war-weariness is a significant reason for conflicts to end more often than most historians acknowledge.

Of course, all these factors had some part in the improved situation. It’s almost impossible to figure out which if any was most important. Unfortunately, we may be about to find out a significant portion of the answer, and war supporters could find themselves dismayed.

On the one hand, the U.S. and Iraqi governments are on the verge of a formal agreement that would see U.S. combat troops removed from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by 2011. These dates are called "aspirational goals" rather than a "timetable" by the Bush administration, which apparently can’t bring itself to utter the demon word it has so often criticized as unpatriotic when war critics have used it. That’s the tentative good news.

The possible bad news is that the Anbar Awakening, which began in November 2006 as Sunni tribal leaders and fighters who had aligned themselves with al-Qaeda and other militant groups decided to oppose al-Qaeda and ally themselves with the U.S., may be on the verge of falling apart or being reversed. If that happens, it is difficult to predict what might happen next.

To be sure, even before Gen. Petraeus arrived and the surge began, the U.S. fairly quickly took advantage of this reversal in attitude and began working with Sunni fighters. Often it gave them jobs and on-the-job training in security practices, paying many of them $300 a month. But the ultimate hope and promise was that these fighters would be incorporated into the national Iraqi military and police forces, thus reinforcing the idea of an essentially or operationally secular national government in which both Sunni and Shia could have a role.

However, as we know now – and as apparently the neocons didn’t think would be a problem, insofar as they had an inkling of the situation before the unprovoked invasion – the Iraqi government is dominated by Shia Muslims, who make up some 60 percent of the Iraqi population. Since the minority Sunni ruled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s time (and for centuries before), the Shia have grievances that are unlikely to be genuinely forgotten anytime soon, even though the Shia haven’t expressed them all that prominently, given that if Uncle Sam is going to impose a majority or "democratic" government they’ll have the power. But that doesn’t mean they trust the Sunni much, so it’s hardly surprising that they haven’t been all that eager to incorporate a bunch of armed men experienced in guerrilla warfare and trained by the United States into "their" security forces.

As one commander commented anonymously to Leila Fadel of McClatchy, "We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently. Many of them were part of al-Qaeda despite the fact that many of them are helping us to fight al-Qaeda."

Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shia member of parliament, didn’t feel the need to go anonymous, and was remarkably blunt: "The state cannot accept the Awakening. Their days are numbered."

So it should not be surprising that U.S. Brig. Gen. David Perkins, senior military spokesman, says only 5,200 of some 100,000 Awakening militia members have been incorporated into national security forces.

The burgeoning hostility gets more ominous. Now the Iraqi government has placed 650 leaders of the Sunni militias on a list of people to be arrested for prior terrorist activities. Abu Marouf, a leading Awakening leader, found his name on that list of 650, and considered it prudent to mosey on down south of Fallujah – but not so deep into hiding that he couldn’t talk to the New York Times.

"Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against al-Qaeda, but it seems that now that al-Qaeda is finished they don’t want us anymore. So how can you say I am not betrayed?" His men, he claims, "sacrificed and fought against al-Qaeda, and now the government wants to catch them and arrest them."

Want a little point-counterpoint? Here’s Brig. Gen. Nassir al-Hiti, commander of the Iraqi army’s 5,000-strong Muthanna Brigade, who also feels no need to make his comment anonymously: "These people are like cancer, and we must remove them." He thinks reconciliation is impossible, even though he also believes that if reconciliation doesn’t occur, some of the Sunni Awakening forces may take up arms again "like a drug addict who quits only to take drugs again." Guess they just can’t help themselves.

In addition to having 650 Sunni Awakening leaders on an arrest list, some army people say the military is considering a Nov. 1 deadline for the rest of those not absorbed into government security forces or given civil service jobs to give up their weapons or face arrest.

It seems that despite the effort to try to placate the Americans by pretending that a national unity government is possible, there’s still little love lost between the leading factions, and not a whole lot of momentum toward mending fences or promoting reconciliation. All of this could precipitate outright civil war and undo all that was accomplished during the past year.

It’s not inevitable, of course. Military historian Gwynne Dyer, in his wise and informed book After Iraq, thinks that, while some bloodshed is no doubt inevitable once the U.S. leaves, it’s unlikely to be the end of the world or even the end of hope for some kind of settlement, though it’s unlikely to be the national reconciliation government the U.S. has fantasized about. Dyer is most emphatic, however, that whatever happens, it’s no longer our business. Intervening again can only make matters worse.

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).