A change in US tactics, and the Sunni tribal uprising in Anbar province, have sharply reduced the level of violence in some important parts of Iraq. The violence and numbers of dead are down to the levels of spring 2006, before the escalation of civil violence that tore the country apart. The worst fighting is now concentrated in and around the mixed areas in Diyala. Large parts of Baghdad and many formerly hostile towns in the west are relatively secure. The number of improvised explosive device attacks has also declined. How much of that is due to Iranian restraint, improved US tactics and technology or less active Shia hostility to coalition forces is as unclear as how long the drop will last.

US and Iraqi forces are scoring important, if regional, tactical victories. However, these cover only western and central Iraq and may well be temporary. For all the claims that the “surge” worked, it is clear that it did not work purely on its own. The build-up of US forces and change in tactics from staying in bases to “win and hold” have accomplished a great deal. However, it was only the combination of the tribal uprising in Anbar, the build-up of troops and the change in US tactics that prevented al-Qaeda and its supporters from dispersing to the areas around Baghdad and intensifying the fighting in central Iraq.

The US team in Iraq deserves great credit for reacting to the Sunni tribal uprising in Anbar, supporting and co-opting it and broadening it to other areas. But that effort may be wasted if the Iraqi government continues to equivocate in allowing the Sunnis to join the police and security services, and if Iraq’s factions cannot agree on how to share the nation’s power and wealth. Everything depends on converting a US-led military success into Iraqi political accommodation.

Yet, while the US and Iraqi forces have scored gains in Baghdad, and west and central Iraq, these are fragile and need to be consolidated by bringing Arab Sunnis fully back into Iraq as a nation. The need for decisive political action goes beyond the uprising in Anbar. Unlike US estimates, Iraqi statistics do not show a drop in the level of violence in the Baghdad area. The United Nations estimates that the number of displaced refugees continues to grow. Moreover, Baghdad is kept secure only by US force. The Shia militias are largely intact. Without political progress and a US military presence, the result could be a forced Shia takeover of the capital.

The coalition security effort has virtually collapsed in the south. Southern Iraq is now under the control of rival Shia factions and the British-led forces have withdrawn. The US lacks the force strength to intervene in the south if it wanted to, and a Shia-dominated central government will never let US forces take on this mission. Iranian gangs and religious extremist influence are growing in every province in the south. These will continue to grow unless a central government emerges that is both strong enough and willing to act. Iraq’s economy can never properly grow unless an area that contains its only port, has a porous border with Iran and produces 80 per cent of its oil export earnings is part of the country and not a Shia enclave.

The surge and tribal uprising have also had no impact on Arab-Kurdish tensions in the north. These were getting worse before the current confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey and remain serious along the entire ethnic fault line from Mosul to Kirkuk. The risk of some form of Kurdish separatism or partition remains serious. It could also turn Iraq’s landlocked Kurds into an isolated mini-state with hostile powers on every border and turn any form of US protection of Iraq’s Kurds into a strategic liability.

US policymakers and Iraq’s leaders need to understand the realities. The tactical victory they have secured in a third of the country could lead to the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and of the most violent and extreme Sunni Islamists. That prospect provides Iraq’s leaders with a real opportunity for political accommodation.

Only Iraq’s leaders can prevent an escalation of the other sectarian and ethnic civil struggles that have already displaced more than 4m people, roughly 15 per cent of the population, and could still tear the country apart. Without more rapid political progress, Iraq’s leaders will waste a priceless opportunity. They will turn our victory into their defeat and into years of further suffering for every ordinary Iraqi.

The writer holds the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is the author of ‘Iraq Force Development’ (CSIS, 2007)

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