The end game in Iraq
Carlton M. Caves
2005 September 30
While the attention of most Americans has been focused on the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the situation in Iraq has gone from bad to worse, with increasing violence both from the Sunni-led insurgency and from radical Shiite elements in the south. The country is headed for an October 15 referendum on the new constitution, an election that threatens to hasten the current slide into violence and civil war.
The Shia and the Kurds dominate the central government, and they controlled the writing of the new constitution. They decided in favor of autonomous regions for themselves, within a federal structure, with each region allowed to enjoy the benefits of its own oil revenues and with the Shia clearly aiming to set up their region under Islamic law. This de jure division of the country endorses the de facto division that already exists on the ground. The Shia and the Kurds, without objection from us or our British allies, have been consolidating control of their respective regions, using the power of their home-grown militias and placing elements of these militias within the police and security institutions. These measures threaten the interests of the previously dominant Sunnis. After several weeks of pressure from us to make changes in the constitution to address Sunni concerns, the Shia and the Kurds said to heck with it and decided to go ahead with their original draft of the new constitution.
One cannot avoid the impression that the country is coming apart along ethnic and religious lines. Adoption of the new constitution will hasten this unravelling by confirming the de facto division of the country, thus further aggravating Sunni discontent, and perhaps plunging the country into full-scale civil war.
Under these circumstances, what options do we have?
Refereeing the conflict. Refereeing is what we tried during the constitution-writing process, attempting to get the Shia and the Kurds to address Sunni concerns. It didn't work, and it is no longer an option. The Shia and the Kurds had little incentive to compromise with the Sunnis, since each was being asked to give up what they already had and most wanted, that being effective control of their own affairs. The only incentive was to unify the country, and the Shia and the Kurds played their hands by going ahead with the draft constitution, showing that autonomy, not surprisingly, is more important to them than unifying the country.
Continuing on the present course. We have been attempting to suppress the Sunni-led insurgency through the use of our own military and the training of Iraqi police and military. Should the insurgency intensify into a civil war in the aftermath of the constitutional referendum, as seems likely, we will be in the unfortunate position of taking sides in that war. We would be the chief defenders of the Shia-Kurd-dominated central government against a popular uprising. Our providing the chief defense would allow the Shia and the Kurds to continue to use their own resources to consolidate control of their respective regions. We would be defending the effective partitioning of the country and the establishment of an Islamic autonomous region in the south. This will be an untenable position, putting our troops in great danger.
Supporting the Sunnis instead. Superficially appealing because the Sunnis are more secular than the Shia, this notion is a nonstarter for nearly every reason. Aside from being a betrayal of everything we have done in Iraq and aligning us with forces supported by international terrorism, it would put us on the other side of the civil war, requiring us to overthrow the very central government we installed and to establish control of the Shiite and Kurdish regions. The reaction of the Shia and the Kurds would make the current insurgency look like a picnic. All this means that this is not really an option at all.
Getting out and praying. I see no useful role we can play in Iraq, since the Iraqis will have to settle their ethnic and religious conflicts themselves, and our troops simply get in the way of forcing them to cut a deal. The best we could hope for---and this is very unlikely---is that enough Sunnis decide that further conflict is not in their interest and accept their own autonomous region, with the Baghdad vicinity becoming a federal capital under the control of a weak central government. The worst? That's very hard to predict, but the sky's the limit: perhaps a civil war that draws surrounding countries into the conflict.
There are no good choices. It's not clear whether there was any way to succeed in Iraq---or even what success would be---but it is clear that Bush and his gang, by their lack of planning and general incompetence, have maneuvered us into a corner from which there is no graceful retreat. The Bush gang's policy was always that a show of force in the Middle East was necessary after 9/11 to impress the countries of the region with our power. This amounted to a gigantic throw of the dice, with uncertain consequences. Over the next year, we will begin to see how the dice are going to land.
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