Best Defense

Iraq, the unraveling (XVIII): don’t hold your breath on reconciliation

Michael Eisenstadt and a member of his posse have a good piece on the barriers to political progress in Iraq. His bottom line: “National reconciliation, if it occurs at all, could take years.” Here are the hurdles he sees: Vested interests. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that key political parties have successfully exploited ethnosectarian grievances ...

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Michael Eisenstadt and a member of his posse have a good piece on the barriers to political progress in Iraq. His bottom line: “National reconciliation, if it occurs at all, could take years.”

Here are the hurdles he sees:

Vested interests. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that key political parties have successfully exploited ethnosectarian grievances as a means of mobilizing support. These parties have a vested interest in perpetuating the political status quo and would stand to lose a great deal if a postsectarian style of politics in Iraq were to emerge as a result of a successful reconciliation process.

Persistent violence. Ongoing violence, although at greatly reduced levels, prevents old wounds from healing, opens new wounds, and creates the potential for renewed civil war. This reality lends immediacy to one of the principal conclusions of a landmark World Bank study on civil conflict: nearly half of all countries emerging from civil war suffer a relapse within five years.

Elusive consensus. Fundamental disagreements remain among Iraqis on a number of key issues, such as de-Baathification, the oil law, and Kirkuk. The fragmentation of Iraqi politics (more than four hundred parties and entities participated in recent provincial elections) complicates efforts to identify individuals capable of speaking for and negotiating on behalf of broad constituencies.

Justice denied. Many of those responsible for the worst bloodletting in recent years — including leaders of antigovernment insurgent groups and government death squads — are still involved in public life as members of provincial councils, the ISF, or parliament and show no contrition for their actions.

Demographic complexity. Because various population groups remain intermingled throughout the country despite years of ethnosectarian cleansing, incidents in one place may have broad consequences elsewhere.

Multilayered conflicts. Iraq’s civil war involved conflicts within, as well as between, communities: the “nationalist resistance” vs. AQI, Awakening councils vs. Islamists, Jaish al-Mahdi vs. ISF units aligned with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. For this reason, intra- and intercommunal reconciliation is needed. To date, most reconciliation efforts have focused on the legacy of intercommunal conflicts, though ultimately both legacies need to be addressed.

Iraqi political culture. While Arab tribal culture and Islam have provided the normative justifications and mechanisms for reconciliation at the local level, the desire for revenge, a zero-sum approach to politics, and religious extremism have hindered reconciliation at the national level.

Election-year politics. In March 2009, when the government expressed a willingness to reconcile with some Baathists, a number of civil society organizations (all apparently linked to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) were formed to thwart these efforts. It will be difficult for the government to ignore these organizations in the run-up to the January 2010 elections, lest it appear “soft” on Baathism and lose the support of key constituencies.

External meddling. Syria, the Gulf Arab states, and Iran supported groups such as AQI and Jaish al-Mahdi, contributing greatly to the 2006-2007 Iraqi civil war and ongoing violence. Preventing the arming, training, and funding of such spoilers is key to keeping the peace in Iraq and moving the reconciliation process forward.

For all these reasons, Iraqis are likely to coexist uneasily for the foreseeable future.”

Remind me again of why it was a good idea to invade these guys?

Jayel Aheram/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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