A counter-intuitive strategy for Iraq

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In Iraq, the US is both the problem and the reason why the situation is not worse than it is. America’s presence feeds the insurgency and yet its precipitous withdrawal would unleash an all-out civil war. That, essentially, is why US leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, are fretfully searching for a sensible exit strategy. And that is why urgent action is required to change course.

What has gone wrong? Not all blame can be laid on the US, guilty of letting Iraqi politics loose rather than leading them astray. Under Saddam Hussein, central institutions were unravelling as he emptied army, party and state of content. His was a rule designed to live and die with him. But since his fall, choices made have done little to defuse the explosive dynamics inherited from the past. At the core of the US administration’s approach were three assumptions: that local politics would be driven by a natural attraction to democracy; that Iraq was neatly divided into three homogenous groups (Shia, Sunni Arab and Kurdish); and – the corollary – that the opposition was confined to a minority defined by hostility toward democracy and by sectarian identity, an expression of Sunni-Arab resistance to majority rule. None of these was entirely false, but each was false enough to trigger devastatingly self-destructive policies.

The Bush administration, believing in the spontaneous appeal of democracy, underestimated the need to re­create the political landscape. Instead, it took a costly political short-cut that ended up lengthening its stay, relying on a narrow set of actors with both access to and familiarity with the US. Parties and leaders accumulated political capital through dealings not with the Iraqi people but with the coalition, amassing power less by generating local resources (for example by formulating political programmes) than by gathering those doled out by the foreign occupier (such as government posts).

Adoption of a strictly ethnic or sectarian reading further shaped US attitudes. Communal identities and tensions predated the occupation, but generally remained suppressed. The process pursued after Mr Hussein’s fall hardened them. Reduction of anti-US opposition to a Sunni-based, anti-democratic movement led to the disregard of other motivations – including use of excessive force by the occupation – and limited the ability to play on differences among insurgents. Washington’s conviction that the Ba’athist regime was essentially Sunni (it was not) and that large numbers of Sunni Arabs therefore were inherently opposed to its overthrow (they were not) became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fearing resistance in Sunni Arab areas before it actually materialised, US forces treated them harshly. This helped heighten hostility from Sunni Arabs who increasingly, albeit reluctantly, identified themselves as such.

Iraq’s constitutional process mirrored what preceded it: negotiated by a narrow group, a reflection of entrenched sectarian loyalties and much haggling over pieces of authority, it establishes a federal state in a country that possesses neither state nor underlying federating values. The constitution dodges some issues, postpones others and leaves many vague; meanwhile, developments on the ground make much of this irrelevant. The constitution was supposed to help forge a national consensus. Instead, it is a reflection of centrifugal forces that are tearing the country apart.

This is not heading toward clean partition between three homogeneous entities. There is too much intermingling for a break-up to be anything but messy and, over time, horrendously bloody. Besides, what is occurring is less orderly division than chaotic fragmentation. In the absence of credible institutions or a legitimate national authority, a highly decentralised state is not being established. Rather, a fledgling state is being carved up. Intent on maximising short-term benefits, political actors engage in predatory behaviour including corruption, assassinations and the establishment of private militias and court systems.

Much needs to be changed to create the conditions for Iraq’s success. The US should redeploy its forces, adopting a more dispersed, less visible presence, focused on protecting civilians rather than eliminating insurgents. It should engage Iraq’s neighbours – Iran included – in the search for a solution. But it must also use what leverage it retains to hold accountable those Iraqis it helped into power. In other words, make clear to a now-sovereign Iraq that longer-term relations, economic assistance and military co-operation will depend on steps it takes to amend the constitution, establish an inclusive political compact, rein in militias, halt politically motivated killings and ensure equal redistribution of oil revenues. It must also ensure that former Ba’ath party members are judged strictly according to past behaviour, not belief or sectarian identity. The recent discovery by US forces of a centre where Iraqis tortured prisoners is but the tip of an unsightly iceberg; beneath it lies much that America’s allies are undertaking, and much the US should try to stop.

Washington is certainly in need of an exit strategy; but a premature withdrawal would leave Iraqis at the mercy of a savage civil war. Paradoxically, the best path toward necessary military disengagement is greater political engagement. It is time for the US to flex its political rather than military muscles.

Robert Malley is Middle East and North Africa programme director and Peter Harling is an Iraq expert and analyst with International Crisis Group

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