Friday, April 08, 2005

Iraq: Still A Long Way To Go

Here are two items - one security, the other political - that signal how far we (Americans and Iraqis) still have to go in Iraq - and why it's critical we don't get complacent and declare victory just quite yet. Although, in the same breath, we can't set the goal posts so high - Iraq becoming Sweden, or some other blissful European social democratic haven - that we're never able to declare victory. I think we have to come to the realization that, yes, there will be troop reductions after the elections set for this December (that is if they don't get delayed which is likely the case because, according to most observers, the deadline for writing and ratifying the new constitution - originally set for August 15 - will be given a six-month extension, as stipulated in the TAL), but there will be a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq for at least, in my estimation, five more years. (In fact, I've read that the Pentagon plans to deploy somewhere around 20,000 more troops for those elections). I don't know what the troop number will be reduced to over that period of time, but, barring any dramatic uptick in insurgent activity, I can see the level of U.S. forces being cut to half or 60% of the current 140,000 or so currently deployed. All depends on, one, security, stability and the ability to continue to train and deploy indigenous Iraqi forces; two, the pace and quality of reconstruction; and three, when the Iraqi government tells us to go home (however that will come when American and Iraqi generals tell the Iraqi government that the first stipulation is sustainable for the long haul).

Ok, let's go to those two items I mentioned. First, from the WashPost. The article talks about the youthful renegade Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the apparent "resurgence" of his Mahdi Army. At first read, you get the feeling al-Sadr's boys are back for more. But then you get into the meat of it, and you find some rational thinking and political straddling among even the radical Shia elements.

On Sheik Aws Khafaji, al-Sadr's man in Nasiriyah: "In private, he can be measured and militant. In one sentence, he will denounce the U.S. presence, warning of calamity if American troops fail to depart. In another, he strikes a more mainstream, nationalist tone -- outreach to Sunnis, cooperation with police, even holding out the prospect of formal participation in the political process once the Americans leave."

On the other hand, Post reporter Anthony Shadid gets this assessment from the U.S. military:

"U.S. military officials say they believe the toll they inflicted during last year's fighting sapped the young cleric's support. While still a threat, the militia is less so than when it first took up arms in April 2004, the officials say.

"'We believe Moqtada's militia is generally marginalized, and there is little to be gained from taking a military role,' said Lt. Col. Bob Taylor, chief intelligence officer for the 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees Baghdad. 'But it could still be a threat.'"

On to the second item, the political front. Nathan Brown, in an interview with the CFR, says the two biggest challanges facing the newly appointed Iraqi government include the status of the Kurdish and oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the level of Islamic influence in the new constitution. He also has a few interesting points about the Sunnis.

I want to highlight his analysis of the role of Islam in Iraq:

"Nobody seems to dissent from the position that Islam should have some kind of official standing and some kind of official recognition, so a completely secular state is out of the question. And at the other end of the spectrum, a completely Iranian model under which clerics exercise some rule in day-to-day politics, is off the table as well. But almost anything in between is a possibility. It could be that laws are given a greater Islamic coloration. It could be that clerics, if not ruling day to day, are still consulted in important matters. It could be that you would have, especially in personal-status matters, a reversion to a situation in which religious law--as determined by religious scholars rather than by the state--plays a much greater role."

Also, Brown on the importance of bringing all parties to the table:

Q: Prime Minister Jaafari, a Shiite, has been talking about the need to bring Sunnis, Kurds, everybody into the government. Do you think that sentiment will prevail at least for the writing of the constitution?

A:It has to prevail for the writing of the constitution, because so many people are given so many different points at which they can exercise a veto. It's a process of virtually enforcing a consensus. So the question is: can a consensus be developed? Without a consensus, the process breaks down. If any three provinces vote against the adoption of the constitution, it is rejected. So, in effect, Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all have a veto.

Q:That requires a major effort to bring Sunnis into day-to-day politics.

A: Yes. On a constitutional level, I think that's a little less difficult than it is with the Kurds, because most of the Sunni demands don't focus on the content of the constitution. They focus on [pressing for an end to the] American presence, they focus a little bit on procedure. I don't think, when writing the constitution, it'll be that hard to make it more palatable to a Sunni audience. The trick will be to get Sunni leaders and the Sunni population on board in the process.

Q: We've seen mixed signals recently, haven't we? Some Sunni leaders are saying people should join the army and the security forces, but some others say that is meant to subvert those forces.

A: And, unlike the Kurdish population and the Shiite population, who have a set of clearly identifiable leaders, it's much less clear who is speaking authoritatively for the Sunni population.

And, finally, as if this post isn't already long enough, StrategyPage has an pretty upbeat, yet realistic, assessement of some of the things I've discussed above along with a discussion about the trouble al Qaeda is having in Iraq.

UPDATE

The AP reports (and the NYT picks it up) on an Sadr-inspired Shia protest in Baghdad today, marking the second anniversary of the crumbling of Saddam's regime. Some telling points: Sadr himself didn't even go because of security concerns. And then you find this nugget of information buried deep down in the story:

"Al-Sadr had stayed out of the limelight since leading failed uprisings last year in the southern city of Najaf and in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. But he has stepped up criticism of the United States in recent weeks, mainly by organizing Saturday's protest, which fell far short of the 1 million people he hoped would assemble."

So there are about 26 million Iraqis, 60% of which are Shia, and al-Sadr's hopes of 1 million of his young trouble-makers turning out to protest the oppressive American occupation doesn't quite materialize. Despite the AP pointing out this well-know fact - "Al-Sadr has wide support among impoverished and young Shiites but overall fewer followers than Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in the country" - the reporters, Qasim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer Yacoub, seem to want to lead us to believe that al-Sadr's movement is regaining traction. I'm not buying it.

In somewhat related news, I didn't catch an AP or NYT dispatch on this or this.

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