NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: Iraq’s shifting balance of power

Shiite contest sharpens in Iraq

Posted at the door of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s office recently, a flier denounced the arrests of his followers. Up and down the barricaded street, soldiers and policemen loyal to his Shiite rivals stood sentry, some in tan armored personnel carriers, questioning anyone they suspected of links to the populist cleric.

Inside the shuttered office, five guards spoke frankly of their sense of vulnerability and weakness. Once in control of the streets of this southern city of holy sites, the Sadrists said they have been chased underground, their rivals at their heels.

The arrests of Sadr’s loyalists are part of a broader power struggle between the two most powerful Shiite factions seeking to lead Iraq: the Sadrists, who are pushing for U.S. troops to withdraw, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Bush administration’s main Shiite ally. Given the nation’s majority-Shiite population, this intensifying confrontation could play a major role in deciding Iraq’s future. [complete article]

Now Iraq needs a surge of political will for reconciliation

… despite the failure of the al-Maliki government to deliver vital legislation, or make anything function, things are changing politically in Iraq.

The changes are hard to see clearly because the country is still going through an ugly period of chaos and confusion, with Shiite militias battling each other in the south, and intra-Shiite violence in Baghdad. Fighting continues between Sunni tribal leaders and al-Qaida in parts of the country. And the al-Maliki government has failed to pass benchmark laws that had been viewed as signs of whether sects could reconcile.

But the sharp decline in sectarian killing has changed the way Iraqis look at politics and their post-Saddam Hussein leaders. “The less there is of sectarian killing, the more people will focus on their interests,” I was told by Sheik Humam Hammoudi, an astute leader of one of the largest Shiite political parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). “We are in a transitional phase, from competition over identity to a competition over interests,” the sheik continued.

Let me explain what that means. In the violent chaos of the post-Hussein era, even secular Iraqis turned to political groups that represented their sect as a form of protection. Long-oppressed Shiites, a numerical majority, were determined to gain the power they believed they had long been denied. Sunnis fought back to retain their old standing. Kurds focused on building their quasi-state in the north.

Now the violence has ebbed. “We have avoided a major sectarian war that could have spread,” Mr. Zebari said. “It is not over, but it has died down. The overall atmosphere has changed.”

Now people have the breathing room to assess their sectarian parties that have failed to deliver services or safety while indulging in astounding levels of corruption. The judgments I heard from every Iraqi I spoke with were unremittingly harsh. [complete article]

Top ten myths about Iraq 2007

Myth: The US troop surge stopped the civil war that had been raging between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Fact: The civil war in Baghdad escalated during the US troop escalation. Between January, 2007, and July, 2007, Baghdad went from 65% Shiite to 75% Shiite. UN polling among Iraqi refugees in Syria suggests that 78% are from Baghdad and that nearly a million refugees relocated to Syria from Iraq in 2007 alone. This data suggests that over 700,000 residents of Baghdad have fled this city of 6 million during the US ‘surge,’ or more than 10 percent of the capital’s population.

Among the primary effects of the ‘surge’ has been to turn Baghdad into an overwhelmingly Shiite city and to displace hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the capital. [complete article]

Three possible post-surge scenarios

Not only will five of the current 20 brigades be out of Iraq by July, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Army chiefs would like to cut troop-deployment terms from 15 months back to their normal 12 months (with 12 months back home for rest and further training). The 15-month terms were always seen as a temporary measure. Talk to soldiers, and they will tell you that 15 months of continuous combat duty is simply too wearing.

Enlistment rates are down; junior officers are dropping out at rates unseen since Vietnam days. The war in Iraq is the main reason for both trends. The Army is already stretched to the bone. Senior officers—and Gates—are deeply worried that maintaining this breakneck pace for much longer might break the all-volunteer Army.

However, if the terms of duty are cut back to 12 months of deployment, followed by 12 months home, it is not clear whether even 15 brigades can be sustained in Iraq for very long. And once troop levels fall below 15 brigades, it is not clear—as they approach 10 brigades, it is very unlikely—that the mission of securing the Iraqi population (the essence of counterinsurgency) can be sustained.

The clock is also ticking on the other games that are keeping ultraviolence at bay. After the Sunni-U.S. alliances defeat the jihadists, or reduce their ranks to a manageable level, nobody expects the Sunni fighters—who, before their “awakening,” spent much of their time shooting and blowing up American soldiers—to become pliant citizens. (Stalin didn’t join NATO or the IMF after he and the Western allies beat Hitler, either.) They will go back to shooting our soldiers, undermining the Shiite-led Iraqi government, or both; in fact, having gained the experience of fighting alongside U.S. troops, and the armaments that went with it, they will be a more formidable force in sectarian battles with Shiites.

If the Sunni insurgents resume their sectarian battles, it is doubtful that Sadr’s Mahdi Army will maintain its cease-fire.

In sum, U.S. forces may soon have more eruptions to damp down—or, to switch metaphors, more holes in the Iraqi dike to plug up. And the task will be more daunting still once the troop-levels decline. [complete article]

Reward Sunni fighters, US commander says

A top U.S. commander warned Tuesday that Sunnis who fight al-Qaida in Iraq must be rewarded and recognized as legitimate members of Iraqi society — or else the hard-fought security gains of the past six months could be lost.

But the Shiite-dominated government is deeply concerned about the Sunni tribal groups, made up of men who in the past also fought against them — not just the Americans.

The warning from Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad, came as two separate suicide attacks killed at least 35 people around Iraq and injured scores of others. One of the bombings targeted a funeral procession for two members of a Sunni tribal group who local police said were accidentally killed by U.S. forces in a dawn raid. [complete article]

U.S. presses for Iraqi self-sufficiency

It started with a broken generator at a water pumping station. Local officials did what they usually do when an important piece of machinery needs repairs: They turned to the U.S. forces stationed in town.

But this time, the answer was “No.” The time had come for officials here to rely on the central government in Baghdad for such things.

“It’s a rather new concept, empowering local leaders to take charge of their leaders,” said Maj. Randall Baucom of the 1st Brigade of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, as he recalled the June generator incident. “But unless these projects are vested at the national level, you can build schools but there are no teachers. You can build clinics but there are no nurses.”

U.S. officials call the process “transitioning.” Others might call it weaning. Whatever the name, it means the same thing: nudging Iraqi officials to stop turning to U.S. forces for services and logistics such as fuel deliveries and clinic construction, and to begin working through the relevant ministries in Baghdad. [complete article]

Military family members share public’s division on Iraq war, Bush

Close family members of U.S. troops are split on whether the Iraq invasion was a mistake, and 55% disapprove of President Bush’s job performance, according to USA TODAY/Gallup Polls focusing on immediate relatives of servicemembers.

“They’ve maxed out on the troops. You’ve got guys who are over there on their fourth or fifth tours. It’s ridiculous,” says Jeanette Knowles, 40, of Mountain Home, Idaho, whose brother, Jeff, served a tour in Iraq with the Oregon National Guard.

Knowles, who calls herself a Democratic-leaning moderate, says her disapproval of Bush stems from his handling of the war.

Military families are more supportive of the war than Americans without immediate family members in the military, the polls show. Among Americans without military relatives, 59% say the invasion was a mistake, compared with 49% of immediate family members. [complete article]

Turkey says its raids in Iraq killed 150 rebels

Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq have killed more than 150 rebels and hit more than 200 targets in recent days, the Turkish military said Tuesday, countering Kurdish claims that only a handful of people were killed in the attacks.

The air raids, on Dec. 16 and 22, were the first large-scale assaults on Iraqi territory since the Turkish Parliament approved cross-border operations in mid-October against hide-outs of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials P.K.K. [complete article]

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