ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ….Why is violence is down in Iraq? Possible answers: The surge is providing additional security. The Anbar Awakening has gotten Sunni tribe leaders on our side and reduced the killing power of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sectarian cleansing has cut down the number of powderkeg neighborhoods in Baghdad. Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to stand down the Mahdi Army has removed one of the main sources of Shiite violence.
The surge, obviously, will be coming to an end over the next few months. So what about the other three factors? Is local level progress enough to eventually produce some kind of national reconciliation? Three recent pieces offer a pessimistic assessment. First, Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post:
Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq.
….All the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn’t begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. “The Sunnis have shown great patience,” said Campbell. “You don’t want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side.” The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn’t reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents “it’s game on — they’re back to attacking again.”
Sheikh Zaidan al-Awad, a prominent Sunni tribal leader from Anbar….said that Anbar’s Sunni tribes no longer had any need to exact blood vengeance on U.S. forces. “We’ve already taken our revenge,” he said. “We’re the ones who’ve made them crawl on their stomachs, and now we’re the ones to pick them up.” He added, “Once Anbar is settled, we must take control of Baghdad, and we will.” There would have to be a lot more fighting before the capital was taken back from the Shiites, he said. “The Anbaris will take charge of the purge. What the whole world failed to do in Anbar, we have done overnight. Baghdad will be a lot easier.”
Many of the players in Iraq seemed, like Zaidan, to be positioning themselves for the next battle. While the Shiites issued warnings about the Sunnis’ intentions, nearly all the talk among the Americans was of the Mahdi Army and its reputed sponsor, Iran, which Petraeus accused of waging a “proxy war” in Iraq; there were dismissive references to Al Qaeda as a spent force.
Unless the local-level deals are consolidated into a national arrangement, the security gains will easily be blown away like so much tumbleweed when the atmosphere goes sour. Maliki now describes those calling for national reconciliation as conspirators and as selfish politicians making unreasonable demands for their own self-interest. Backers of the bottom-up approach increasingly seem to be accepting this convenient frame, since it justifies ignoring the point of greatest failure. After all those months where Maliki was vilified for refusing to move on national reconciliation, he now finds Americans far more receptive to essentially the same arguments: don’t worry about the “failure” of national reconciliation since it isn’t important or desirable. And so he is moving ahead without the troublesome Sunni politicians, taking advantage of the space created by a moment of relative security to…further marginalize his Sunni “partners.”
All three of these pieces are worth reading in full. As things stand now, nearly everyone seems to have given up completely on the idea of national reconciliation, which was the nominal goal of the surge in the first place. Instead, we’re said to be making “bottoms up” progress. Provincial elections will do what national elections haven’t. It’ll be slow and messy, but it’s just a different way of getting to the same place.
Maybe. But from my seat it looks like the same old happy talk. Neither the Shiites nor the Sunnis have so far demonstrated any serious desire to compromise on the key issues of national governance. Instead, they’re just using the surge as a way of catching their breath and readying themselves for the battle to come. When it does, whose side will we be on?