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Iraq: American Options

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The following article presents information offered to the House Government Reform Committee on National Security on Friday, September 15. The title of the hearing was ‘What Are the Consequences of Leaving Iraq?’ and was aired on C-Span. A summary of this hearing is recalled by this writer below. The Panel of witnesses were expert in the study of Iraq and its people with decades of experience focusing on Iraq. See end of article for participants.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R) who chaired these hearings asked Thomas Friedman’s question on C-Span’s Washington Journal, “Are we baby-sitting a civil war in Iraq?” It is a most pertinent question in light of the hearing discussed below.

Before looking forward to a viable Iraqi government capable or standing on its own, it is vital we look straight at the state of Iraq at the present time. The Kurds are in the best seat in Iraq. Residing in the North of Iraq, they have established their own prime minister, parliament, security forces, laws, and defense zones. For all intents and purposes, the Kurds have an independent state of their own, and their region is prodominantly marked by peaceful relations and the absence of hostilities.

Clearly however, the Kurds do not want the break up of Iraq. They have a vested interest in Iraq remaining a whole state. Part of that interest rests in the fact that the potential oil largesse of Iraq may lie outside their territorial areas. Under the current law, Kurds are entitled to a representative share of Iraq’s oil revenues. Another vested interest is in defense. Were Iraq to partition into 3 separate states, the Kurds affinity for modern society and friendship with Western nations could make them a target of theistic fundamentalist Shia and Sunni states which would surround them.

Finally, should the Kurds become an independent nation, they would be overrun by Kurd immigration which would create hostilities with neighboring nations from which other Kurds would attempt to emigrate, eroding those other state’s population, tax and worker base, causing conflict with the Iraqi Kurd government. The Kurds are active members in the new Iraqi government and are working diligently to try to hold Iraq together. It is in their self-professed interest to do so.

Some Southern regions of Iraq are contain al-Queda, and separatist Sunni and Shia factions, the Shia being predominant in number. Marriages between Sunni and Shiite men and women are being torn apart by the sectarian war underway between Sunnis and Shiites. This conflict between Sunni and Shia has been growing since just after the invasion, but most rapidly in the last year. Last year at this time their were approximately 400 sectarian incidents of violence per month. Today it is over 800. The worst of it is located in Baghdad where 7 million Sunnis and Shias have divided the city into East and West camps, and the migration to those camps is growing everyday. But this violence is also spreading East, West, and South of Baghdad, as news of the civil conflict increases.

The civil conflict between Shia and Sunni stems partly from the Sunni’s perspective of being superior and their experience of having controlled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, despite their being a minority in number compared to the Shiites. Many Shiites sought retribution against Sunnis soon after the liberation from Saddam’s regime. But, there have been such large casualties on both sides since 2003, that the conflict now has a life of its own pumped by blood feud and revenge for the many thousands of family members killed or wounded by this sectarian violence. Kidnapping, torture, and murder by rivals are now commonplace in Baghdad.

The new Iraqi government and its representatives have nothing to govern but words and paper. The clearest and most straight forward fact about the situation in Iraq is that the government has no people to govern. They issue laws, they issue edicts, and they plead with their respective populations to exercise restraint and observance of the law, but, the people are not listening and will not follow, for the blood feud has the full attention of 100’s of thousands, if not a million or more, of the Shia and Sunni populations. The Iraqi Army of approximately 192 thousand are partisan and when orders go out for them to engage the violence, only about 10% show up. In reality, the government has control of an army of approximately 20,000 members who will respond to orders of the government to deploy for combat. And many of those are reluctant to act against member of their own sect.

The situation is far worse amongst the Iraqi police, the majority of whom, are actually participating in the sectarian violence in their respective jurisdictions. In June of this year, the U.N. estimated the Iraqi civilian death toll averaged slightly more than 100 per day. In the month of July, the total rose to more than 3400, or about 110 per day. Despite American numbers showing a reduction in August, the Iraqi government’s revised numbers reflect August civilian deaths across the country hit 3,438, with a triple increase of deaths in the city of Baghdad from about 500 to over 1500, according to the morgue, there.

To be sure, the American and coalition forces in Iraq are preventing these numbers from being much higher through their presence and martial law enforcement. And these facts raise the most serious questions for Americans about their continued occupation of Iraq. It is very clear that this civil war in Iraq is escalating, and will continue to wage despite American troop presence, though obviously at a slower rate than if Americans withdrew. But, with escalation of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis inevitable, many policy makers and experts are declaring that ending of the civil conflict is no longer a viable objective for American troops remaining in Iraq. If Americans are to remain in Iraq, they must do so for other objectives which are defensible and rational.

America is very divided on the continued occupation of Iraq. The cost in terms of G.I. losses, now an average of 2 per day, and 10 times that number in seriously wounded, as well as the $10 million dollars per hour or $244 million dollars per day, are taking a toll upon the American public’s support for the occupation. Yet, none of the experts providing testimony of this assessment, agree that pulling completely out of Iraq is an option. The main reasons are the al-Queda presence in Southern Iraq, and the potential dissolution of the currently ineffective Iraqi government which literally has no control over its population.

What the experts did agree on is that there can be no solution to the threat of Iraqi dissolution or, breaking apart, until the Iraq civil war has been fought and played out. They agree that our presence will slow the escalation of the civil war, but, argue whether it will shorten or prolong the civil war. They also agree, that one objective of western forces must be to keep external forces and al-Queda from taking control of areas in Iraq. The panel experts before this hearing last week had two plans of action.

The first offered by Peter Galbraith (2), is a withdrawal of American forces over the horizon of Iraqi borders but, remaining in the region as an immediately deployable deterrent force in the event of an attempt to overthrow the Iraqi government by external or, al-Queda led, forces. This would have the effect of substantially reducing the forces needed, the costs of supporting such forces, and dramatically reduce the American casualties, since it removes American forces from policing activities across much of Iraq. Additionally, it would likely hasten the escalation of the growing civil war in Iraq, and potentially result in its earlier conclusion, as little as one year, as many as several. The sooner the civil war plays out and ends, the sooner the Iraqi government can gain control of the people. An added benefit of this approach would be to free up American forces to add military potential punch to diplomatic efforts with Iran, which now considers America’s military options extremely limited by the Iraqi occupation.

The other plan suggested by Dr. Fearon (1), calls for some reduction and withdrawal of American forces to staging areas within Iraq, leaving Americans involved in the midst of only certain strategic civil conflicts, like in Baghdad, all the while preserving whatever forces necessary surrounding the seat of Iraqi government to protect it. This would permit, but only incrementally, allowing the civil conflicts in Iraq to escalate in only specified areas at a time. The reasoning here is that allowing the civil war to play out in small specific areas at a time, while stemming it in other key areas, eliminates the potential of the whole of Iraq escalating the civil war at one time threatening the dissolution or overthrow of the Iraqi government. As areas resolve the civil conflict, Iraqi military and police can move in to preserve the peace of these communities, and American forces could withdraw from other areas of civil conflict to allow the sectarian violence to play itself out. One shortcoming of this approach over Galbraith’s is that few American forces will be freed up to back up American diplomacy with other nations like N. Korea or Iran.

Both of these plans call for reducing the wide American footprint in Iraq. One of the potential positive outcomes of this is downsizing the U.S. role in Iraq, and thereby, potentially reducing the Islamic propaganda and news of American involvement. Both of these plans allow for the sectarian hostilities to play out, either all at once, or piecemeal. Both of these plans put the responsibility for sectarian violence squarely in the hands of the new Iraqi government and their military and police forces to deal with as circumstances will allow. This will have both the effects of reducing American casualties and motivating Iraqis to get control or, suffer the consequences until they do. This strategy will reduce Iraqi dependence upon American forces for policing Iraq which must be an inevitable outcome and goal.

Finally, and critical to understanding these plans as different from our current operations in Iraq, is that both allow for the inevitable civil war or, sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni, to play itself out and come to an end soooner than later. Repressing the civil conflict all across Iraq appears to only delay and prolong the inevitable conflict.

Fouad Ajami (3) testified that the one plan the new Iraqi government representatives absolutely do not want is a full and abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces. The government is acutely aware that they are not in control of their own country.

As was cited a number of times by Fearon and Galbraith, there is an Iraqi government, but they have nothing to govern except paper and words. The population of Iraq, its military, police, and agency workers are not yet following the Iraqi governments prescriptions or sanctions, leaving the Iraqi government virtually one in name and structure only. It will take time, and an end to the bulk of the civil war before the Iraqi government will have the opportunity to govern the Shia and Sunni populations now consumed in a war against each other.

The testimony of this hearing will be disseminated to the full Congress and likely end up in the hands of White House officials. What happens to it there, is anybody’s guess. But, if Congress adopts either of these clearly different strategies from current White House strategy, they can begin to shape funding toward the adoption of one of these plans, in a real sense, forcing the White House’s departure from its “stay the course” policy currently in play.

Witnesses before the House Committee:

(1) Dr. James Fearon, Stanford Univ. Pol. Sci. Professor.
(2) Peter Galbraith of the Center for Arms Control & Non-proliferation, Senior Fellow.
(3) Fouad Ajami, School of Advanced International Studies, Middle East Studies Director.

Representatives present hearing testimony:
Representative Christopher Shays (R)
Representative Chris Van Hollen (D)

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