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Iraq redux

Iraq redux

Posted: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 9:27 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

 By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — Iraq has faded into the background for now, behind a more pressing war in Afghanistan, and in a way the victim of its own success. General Petraeus gets high marks for turning a lost cause into a winnable effort with violence way down and U.S. troop withdrawal plans in the works. The insurgents that for the last five years battled the occupation by trying to kill American soldiers have come to the realization that if the level of violence drops, the occupiers will leave on their own. It would be nice if that were the end of the story in Iraq. But does anybody believe that the Shiite majority that dominates the current government will share power with the minority Sunnis? And does anyone think that the Sunnis, once the ruling elite of Iraq, will accept their secondary status without a fight? These ethnic groups have held a grudge for centuries. They are patient. They will have no trouble waiting for the U.S. exodus before resuming their blood feud. A key part of the Petraeus strategy in stabilizing Iraq was to co-opt the various insurgent groups, make friends with them, and bring them into the force structure protecting their own neighborhoods. The hope is that these so-called Sons of Iraq will owe their allegiance to the central government, but it is more likely they will revert to their tribal loyalties once the U.S. presence is removed. These groups are all armed with weapons given to them by U.S. commanders. American troops will either be withdrawn in 16 months, as President-elect Obama has pledged, or by the end of 2011, which is the timetable approved by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government. What happens next could be a full-blown mess with Shiites and Sunnis killing each other along with rival Shiite factions joining in the melee. If the killing is contained within these groups, U.S. policymakers could argue that America’s national interests are not threatened, that the Iraqis have a right to fight it out in a civil war without their U.S. benefactors taking a stand. But with Iran right next door, the nightmare scenario has Iran entering the fray as an ally of the Shiites, crushing the Sunnis, which could then draw in other nations in the region that are sympathetic to the Sunnis. It is not a situation that will help anybody sleep at night. Yet it is avoidable if the new administration is willing to make some policy changes. Keeping a large troop presence in Iraq is no longer possible; the Iraqis don’t want it and the U.S. military can’t sustain it. The logical outcome of Iraqi on Iraqi violence is a break-up of the country into three parts, which we have long maintained will happen in any event. The Kurds in the north are already autonomous and they are doing fine. The south of the country is Shia-dominated with central Iraq around Baghdad the most hospitable place for the Sunnis. The question for the next administration is whether they help the Iraqis divide along predictable ethnic lines, or wait until many more lives are lost before the inevitable becomes U.S. policy. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, incoming Vice President Joe Biden was an early advocate of dividing the country into a loose confederation of autonomous states with a central government nominally in control. He hasn’t given voice to that position in recent months in part because the urgency isn’t there. With casualties down, both American and Iraqi, the war in Iraq is not commanding front-page attention. But it is still draining U.S. resources to the tune of $12 billion a month, and it won’t be long before Obama’s attention will be drawn back to the issue that propelled him into the presidential race two years ago. There’s not a moment to waste, Obama said in his press conference. He was talking about the economy, but he might as well have been talking about Iraq. Published in The Messenger 12.2.08

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