Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraq, the unraveling (#43): Sunnis out, and expert explanations vary greatly

On Saturday, the leading Sunni party said it had decided to withdraw from Iraq’s March 7th national elections. And former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi went to Saudi Arabia to confer with its king and its intelligence chief. And the Iraqi vice president met with the Egyptian ambassador. And Iranian troops acted pushy along the Iraqi ...

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, the leading Sunni party said it had decided to withdraw from Iraq's March 7th national elections. And former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi went to Saudi Arabia to confer with its king and its intelligence chief. And the Iraqi vice president met with the Egyptian ambassador. And Iranian troops acted pushy along the Iraqi border at volatile Diyala province, which I am told is the Maliki faction's preferred overland route to Iran. What up with all that?  

I am getting very puzzled. Some friends of mine say not to worry, the Sunnis understand they have lost and are going to suffer for a generation. Other friends of mine, equally knowledgeable in Iraqi affairs, predict civil war or a military coup by September. (And a third friend says that a military coup would be a good outcome.) They can't all be right.

On Saturday, the leading Sunni party said it had decided to withdraw from Iraq’s March 7th national elections. And former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi went to Saudi Arabia to confer with its king and its intelligence chief. And the Iraqi vice president met with the Egyptian ambassador. And Iranian troops acted pushy along the Iraqi border at volatile Diyala province, which I am told is the Maliki faction’s preferred overland route to Iran. What up with all that?  

I am getting very puzzled. Some friends of mine say not to worry, the Sunnis understand they have lost and are going to suffer for a generation. Other friends of mine, equally knowledgeable in Iraqi affairs, predict civil war or a military coup by September. (And a third friend says that a military coup would be a good outcome.) They can’t all be right.

The experts’ predictions are all over the map in a way I haven’t seen since about late 2005. This is not a good sign.

My friend retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, who was a planner in the middle of the surge and then on the staff of the National Security Council, thinks it all boils down to why you think security improved in Iraq in 2007:

If you think that in 2007 the Surge really [just] ‘froze the factions’ and that the primary agency belonged to the United States, then logically our withdrawal means that we should expect everything to fall apart. If you think that in 2007 the Iraqis decided they had enough of this and (with a lot of US help) arrived at a modus vivendi (an ‘Iraqi good enough’ one), then you would expect that our exit would have little effect and may even be stabilizing (down to a point — leaving some type of residual force, even in an robust Office of Military Cooperation, is important).

Tom again: I think this is a good analysis. I tend to come down on the side of believing that American intervention (both directly, with troops, and indirectly, with money) was key to the events of 2007.

Meanwhile, here’s the debate between well-informed Reidar Vissar and less so U.S. Amb. to Iraq Chris Hill. Guess who wins? Maybe the guy who knows something about Iraq? This isn’t entirely fair to Hill, who doesn’t get a chance to rebut. My favorite Vissar jibe: "In this paragraph, Hill actually goes as far as embracing the jurisprudence of Ahmad Chalabi."

On the other hand, I am not sure how Vissar now views the situation. (Like I said, the experts are all over the place.) I thought he had been pretty copacetic with the situation in Iraq, but here he sounds alarmed: "Only a massive voter turnout on 7 March can now reverse the negative trend in Iraq and prevent the country from falling prey to rapacious regional forces."

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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