Will Iraq Be Lost in Transition?

Reporting on the ground in Iraq suggests the surge is going better than even Petraeus and Crocker let on. The challenge now is to make sure their efforts aren’t wasted when U.S. troops start coming home.

CATE GILLON/Getty Images NewsMen out of time? Petraeus and Crocker have made unheralded gains in Iraq, but huge challenges remain as the Washington clock winds down.

CATE GILLON/Getty Images NewsMen out of time? Petraeus and Crocker have made unheralded gains in Iraq, but huge challenges remain as the Washington clock winds down.

In December 2006, Iraq nearly destroyed itself. The body count peaked at 3,000 a month then as Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents battled in the streets. Many Iraqi victims were found bound, gagged, and shot execution stylethe signature method of the insurgents. Many more were killed indiscriminately by powerful bombs. Ethnic cleansing proceeded apace as Shiite militias pushed out Sunnis and the latter retaliated in the few neighborhoods where they still had the advantage. More than two million Iraqis have left the country, and as many as 2.2 million may be displaced internally. In almost every neighborhood of Baghdad, squatters can be found moving into vacant homes with the few belongings they fled with.

But during a three-week trip to Iraq in late August and early September this year, I found that Iraq has pulled back from the brink of all-out civil war. The death toll among Iraqi civilians had fallen to 1,600 in August, according to figures cited by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus. The violence is still far above the levels of 2004 and 2005, but the hoped-for breathing space has been created. Platoons of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers stood guard along the fault lines between Baghdads Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, thwarting the worst sectarian violence. After aggressive U.S. military operations this spring, al Qaeda in Iraq is playing defense, and Shiite extremists have been debilitated. Nuri al-Malikis government has grudgingly begun to hire Sunni volunteers into the police force. And, in a barely publicized development, it has decided to rehire 5,000 former officers of Saddams military and give 40,000 others civilian jobs or full pensions.

To be sure, the level of violence in Iraq is still unacceptably high, and these real but fragile gains are easily reversible. Most importantly, the so-called surge has yet to enable the Iraqi government to reach a national agreement on sharing power and resources among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Thats no surprise: It was the September reporting deadline that created an unrealistic expectation that reconciliation and all the key legislation would be in place by then. Still, even with most political benchmarks largely unmet, General Petraeus seems to have bought himself more time on what he calls the Washington clock.

But something has changed: The debate is now about when and how fast, not whether, the United States will withdraw from Iraq. Starting in December, U.S. forces will begin to transition their forces, at least in outlying areas, toward advisory and support missions. To keep the fragile momentum going, however, it will be essential to continue to secure the population and foster reconciliation at the neighborhood level. There are two dangers now. The first is that impatience in Washington, not conditions on the ground in Iraq, will dictate the pace of transition. The second danger is that Iraqis, seeing that the United States is now embarked on a drawdown, however gradual, will begin to harden their positions and make further political progress even more difficult. U.S. leverage will inevitably wane as the transition continues, so it is essential that all possible political pressure be brought to bear sooner rather than later.

Knowing the Baghdad clock is ticking, General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are leading a full-court press to get more Sunnis into the government and to push Maliki ahead on reconciliation. They have achieved some success on local initiatives, though not on key legislation and certainly not enough to demonstrate that the Maliki government is even capable of achieving a power-sharing agreement. Stability in Iraq, if it comes, will come not with a big bang but rather through a series of piecemeal steps that at a minimum give the minority Sunnis the ability to secure and govern the areas they inhabit, with funding from the central government. U.S. officials hope to allay Shiite fears as it becomes clear that these local concessions will not enable the return of their oppressors. In the anodyne lingo of peacemakers, these are called confidence-building measures. On the ground, it is a grinding, exhausting business, and certainly not one given to headline-making breakthroughs.

The most significant development at the grass roots has been the U.S. recruitment of thousands of Sunnis to serve as U.S.-paid security guards, which the Iraqi Army is now permitted to work alongside. Much has been made of how Sunnis in Anbar province have joined the Army and police. Additional resources have been funneled to the provincial government, and more Sunnis have joined Anbars provincial council. But its not just an Anbar phenomenon. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the three-star commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq, told me that some 15,000 Iraqi volunteers have been contracted by U.S. battalions in greater Baghdad (in Ameriya, Ghazaliya, Adhamiya, Taji, Radwaniya, Abu Ghraib, and Yusufiyah) and in provinces to the north. That is as many as have been recruited in Anbar. The volunteers I talked to in southern and western Baghdad see this as their best chance to secure their communities and to become part of the Iraqi security forces. They still distrust the Iraqi government, but they now see the U.S. military as a bulwark against further sectarian attacks.

The only way these Sunni volunteers will contribute to lasting peace is if they are incorporated into the standing security forces of the country. U.S. military commanders have a plan, Operation Blue Shield, to fold more than 12,000 of them into the Iraqi police force in the next six months. A national reconciliation committee made up of three officials close to the prime minister has been formed, and after much prodding, has come up with a transparent vetting policy to approve the Sunni candidates. This is the only way to bring former insurgents and terrorists into the fold; as a British general said, one does not reconcile with ones enemies. But the key is to institutionalize the fighters as soon as possible, with government command and control over them, to prevent this initiative from becoming merely the next phase in the civil war. It must also be accompanied by a top-down political process that ties leaders to cease-fire commitments and other bargains. So far, 1,500 volunteers from Abu Ghraib, a Sunni enclave in western Baghdad, have begun training at the police academy, and nearly 700 more from Mansour district have been accepted, the brigadier general in charge of this initiative told me. Other groups of Sunnis from Ameriya and Adhamiya are pushing to be incorporated into the police or army, I learned during a recent tour of the two insurgent strongholds.

Can these security-focused, local efforts somehow lead to national reconciliation, as Petraeus and Crocker argue they can? Perhaps. In an interview in his office on August 27 and a subsequent visit to Fallujah on September 1, General Petraeus made clear how much stock he places in a bottom-up approach. Anbar is his model for how to link the local volunteer security initiative to national political and economic power sharing. You see local progress that produces improvements in local security, and then leads to local leaders wanting to connect to the central government, because all resources here flow from the central government, he said. That power of the purse, he added, in turn provides a degree of control that addresses some of the legitimate concerns of the Shiite-led central government about hiring in some cases former insurgents and in any case Sunni Arabs.

Although it has shown reluctance to embrace the wholesale incorporation of Sunnis into the police, the Iraqi government has quietly brought former Iraqi officers (read: Sunnis) back into the Army. Since the spring, Malikis staff told me, his government circulated a survey and received 48,600 responses from interested former soldiers. According to U.S. officials, Maliki has decided to reincorporate 5,000 officers, offer civil service jobs to another 7,000, and grant full pensions to the rest. Oddly, General Petraeus only mentioned this in passing in his testimony, rather than making it a centerpiece. It is nonetheless the most significant step toward reconciliation that the government has yet taken.

Another step dismissed in the U.S. debate as meaningless was the August 26 accord among Maliki, the president, the two vice presidents, and Massoud Barzani, who is president of the Kurdish region. It was the product of intensive and torturous negotiations and a new, staff-driven effort to broker substantive deals on the core issues of the conflict. The principals agreed on two pieces of legislation regarding de-Baathification and provincial powers, as well as a new governing mechanism to replace Malikis insular style. Detainee releases were used as the bait to get Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to sign on. It will be a significant breakthrough if Maliki honors it and if the laws are passed by parliament. Other parts of the agreement, including a commitment of due process for all detainees, constitute a significant olive branch to the Sunnis. Iraqi and U.S. officials are also trying to gain Sunni acceptance of a key point in the stalled oil legislation. The primary sticking point at this stage is Sunni objections to the Kurds wish to offer production-sharing agreements to entice foreign oil companies to exploit their more difficult reserves.

Officials report progress in confronting the most sectarian influences. In contrast to his obstruction last year, Maliki has permitted far more targeting of extremist Shiite militia groups than is generally known. Iraqi and U.S. Special Operations forces conduct almost nightly raids into Sadr City and other Shiite extremist strongholds in southern Iraq. They have captured many of the top leaders, which is probably one reason why radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has declared a truce. Down in Basra, Special Operations forces require continued cover from British armor to make headway there, U.S. Special Operations Lt. Col. Sean Swindell told me. Political efforts have been under way for more than a year to drive a wedge between Maliki and Sadr extremists and to moderate Sadrs movement.

Not everyone is optimistic. Mid-level officers who work daily with Iraqi security forces still see the Shiite militias and their allies in the Iraqi government as bent upon total domination, waging what U.S. Col. J.B. Burton calls a campaign of exhaustion by kinetic and nonkinetic means against the Sunnis. Sectarian behavior continues to plague the Shiite-dominated military and police. In the Saddiya neighborhood of Baghdads West Rashid security district, the Mahdi Army, Sadrs Shiite militia, is pushing Sunnis out of their homes in a continuing cycle of violence. The national police unit there is doing nothing to stop it, and in the opinion of at least one U.S. officer, there are too few U.S. troops in that neighborhood to lay down the security blanket that has proven effective elsewhere in the city. Along Route Jackson, the major thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood, Shiite militias continue to pick off American Humvees with deadly shaped charges or bombs. They are doing the same on Route Pluto, which runs along Sadr City. In this officers opinion, at least four more battalions are needed to secure Baghdad, even leaving Sadr City to an eventual political settlement.

What hope of success is there? Petraeus and his inner circle dont dispute the fact that there is still a great deal of violence in Iraq, that national reconciliation is still a distant dream, and that the Army and Marines are strained. For them, the really thorny question is how fast to draw down the remaining 15 combat brigades. General Odierno argues that to draw down more quickly now jeopardizes the chances for consolidating the initial gains won by the surge. If you tell me today, we are going to go down to 10 brigades in six months, I believe thats a failed strategy, he said in early September. We will not accomplish our goals that I see here in Iraq. If you ask me that six months from now, I might give you a different answer.

Although no one in the Bush administration is asking for it, more pressure from the U.S. Congress could compel progress on the political front. It was the September reporting deadline that galvanized the August 26th accord among Iraqi leaders. Another reporting deadline, before March, might produce more progress. Other proposals for sustained negotiations, along the lines that produced the Dayton accords, might also help Crocker with his Sisyphean task as both clocks tick down. Hell need all the help he can get.

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