May 08, 2005


A reader, on the ground in Iraq with Centcom, sends in the below:

Gregory, I was just reading your comments on "A Brief Note on Iraq" and the return of Leslie Gelb from a ten-day fact finding trip to Iraq. I've been here for about the last fifteen months or so. I'm not sure after fifteen months of fact-finding I really understand Iraq either. Of course, I am not talking to 75% of the leadership, but I do have eyes and ears to help gauge the situation. I don't want to point by point with the interview, it isn't useful and I don't think it would accomplish much. Gelb does say, however:

"One of the main conclusions I came away with from the trip was that we hardly know what is going on. I spent 10 very intensive days there. . . .. I spent a lot of time talking to Iraqis, listening to them, and I don't feel I know what was going on there."

Maybe I am picking at bones. But isn't it rather clear what is going on? I mean it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there are some that hope to use fear and violence to snuff out the fragile electoral process. The number of attacks go up and the number go down. If you look at the attacks over say, the last eight months or so, you'll see that the number has remained relatively constant, between fifty and a hundred a day, except for two peaks (Ramadan and the run up to the elections). Meanwhile, the enemy is using up personnel right and left and gaining no traction among the populace. What did Iraqis see just before the election in the OBL to Zawaquiri letter? They saw a Saudi telling a Jordanian to kill Iraqis. Yeah. That will gain a lot of support in Iraq. Yep.

I think the enemy is getting desperate. They are trying a number of different techniques attempting to find one that will give them some traction. They've tried the big attacks at the AG Prison and out west on the Syrian border. Both failed. They were routed at the lakeside camp a month ago. They were rolled up in Fallujah last November. They continue to try to spark a religious war between the Shia and Sunni, and it is not working. A recent internal letter says that they are becoming de-moralized. You know, the largest battles of the Pacific campaign in WWII came just before the end of the war. So too it seems we are seeing that sort of desperate effort now. Yes, the body count is high, the enemy is going after very soft targets. But every day, volunteers line up for Police training, Army training, National Guard training or other support for the new government. And, the enemy know it. The enemy knows that success here means even more 'problems' for their home countries. You know, suicide (homicide) bombings are not part of the Iraqi culture. What does that tell you? You've heard, no doubt, that some of these VBIED drivers have been chained to the steering wheels. . . You can't make this stuff up.

One can hope the recent uptick in violence in Iraq is born of a last ditch "desperate effort." And, of course, my correspondent has a better feel for the general situation--from his on the ground vantage point for over a year--than B.D. does blogging from London or New York. The biggest factor in our favor (which he and Les Gelb both point out), in my view, is simply that the fanatical tactics of the insurgents are simply not winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Assuming that train and equip proceeds apace, and that we have an Iraqi Army willing to effectively fight and die for the New Iraq, I remain reasonably confident that the insurgency will ultimately be vanquished. The next major challenge, in all likelihood, will be a U.S. stablization role with regard to increasing Sunni-Shia tensions (while political governance structures hopefully continue to take root that allow for moderates to inhabit the fledging national institutions).

From the NYT:

Sunnis also largely boycotted the January elections, a decision that many of them now regret. With only 17 representatives in Iraq's 275-member National Assembly, they are entirely dependent on the good will of the Shiites and Kurds for any role in the new government.

A further problem is the lack of any cohesive Sunni political bloc. When negotiations over the Defense Ministry and other cabinet posts opened, several Sunni groups put forward separate lists of cabinet nominees instead of banding together on one.

The lack of unity arises from several factors. Sunnis in Iraq were in charge and never had to take shelter in communal loyalties, as Shiites and Kurds did. Sunni Islam does not have the kind of religious hierarchy that makes Shiites rally around their ayatollahs. As a result, many Sunnis still do not take their primary sense of identify from their religion. More than their Kurdish and Shiite counterparts, they have resisted the sectarian trend that has swept Iraq over last two years, and prefer to call themselves simply Iraqis.

But that is starting to change. Even cosmopolitan figures like Adnan Pachachi, the 81-year-old Iraqi elder statesman, have begun to drop their secular language and cast themselves primarily as Sunnis. Mr. Pachachi now says he hopes to build a Sunni political and religious coalition that might rival the Shiite alliance formed under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Mr. Qaisi, as it happens, conceived the idea of uniting Iraq's Sunnis in early 2003, during a trip to Mount Ararat, near Mecca. Within a few months he had gathered 85 leaders of Sunni groups across Iraq, secular and religious. But that group eventually fell victim to partisan bickering. Last year Mr. Qaisi tried again, forming his current coalition, the National Dialogue Council.

Mr. Qaisi says he believes in nonviolence. His three wives are all Shiites, he says, so he understands the Shiite point of view.

Still, his Sunni nationalism has taken on a darker edge. Where he and other Sunnis once reserved most of their bile for the American occupation, he is now much angrier about Iraq's Shiite leadership.

During a raid on his house last year, American soldiers threw his pregnant daughter to the floor, and she later miscarried, he said, and his son was so frightened that he has become mentally ill. But Mr. Qaisi seems far less angry at the American troops than at the Shiite militia members who were also in on the raid.

"If the U.S. troops came alone, we would shake their hand," Mr. Qaisi said. "But they brought our enemies with them."

Behind the Shiite religious parties, Mr. Qaisi sees a darker foe: Iran. Like a number of other Sunni politicians, he has taken to calling the Shiite leaders "Safawis" - an allusion to the Safavid rulers who came from what is now Iran to conquer Iraq in the 17th century.

Most tellingly, Mr. Qaisi has a perception of Iraq's most fundamental realities that is utterly opposed to that of the Shiites. He and many other Sunnis believe that much of the terrorism ostensibly carried out by Sunni fighters is in fact directed and financed by Iran. He even says that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist whose network often attacks Shiite mosques and civilians, is largely a front for Iran's Shiite government.

Mr. Qaisi refuses to believe that Shiites make up 60 percent of the population, the figure that has been widely accepted inside and outside Iraq for a number of years. Instead, he believes they are closer to 30 percent - less, he adds, than Iraq's Sunnis.

B.D. has previously predicted that an important phenomenon to monitor will increasingly be that of growing Shi'a hostility towards U.S. forces with, concomitantly, less Sunni belligerency aimed at the Americans. Much like, say, in Kosovo--today's liberators quickly become tomorrow's oppressors (recall how quickly the Kosovo Liberation Army turned from jubilance at the arrival of the NATO cavalry to attacking those same forces once they were perceived to have gone from liberators to protectors of Serbian minority rights). Many Shi'a (Sadrists aside) were thrilled that the Sunni-centric, Saddamite yoke was lifted by the U.S. invasion. Down the road, however, as the U.S. takes a lead role in ensuring minority rights are respected and that Sunnis wield real power in the national government, we may well see Shi'a appearing the ingrates rapidly indeed as they rail against American forces holding them back from their maximalist goals vis-a-vis their previous Sunni oppressors. This is a hugely important dynamic that will need to be monitored closely in the months ahead. And it's also a reason a significant presence in Iraq must continue to be counted in years not months. B.D. does not count himself as one that believes an Iraqi civil war is inevitable. But a precipitous drawing down of U.S. forces would certainly increase the chances of sectarian discord scuttling the democratization process in Iraq.

Posted by Gregory at May 8, 2005 07:32 PM | TrackBack (10)

I'd like to believe your correspondent's interpretation of trends in Iraq, Greg. I'd feel more confident about them if I knew he was serving in a combat command, as opposed to somewhere in the Green Zone.

I understand you can't be more specific about that. It's just that fairly optimistic reports about Iraq have been coming out of the Pentagon and Centcom for just over two years now. It's not all spin by any means, I'm sure; there are a lot of positive things happening on the ground, but the one thing our people have been least successful at is predicting the resources available to and the staying power of the enemy.

Posted by: JEB at May 9, 2005 02:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'd like to believe your correspondent's interpretation of trends in Iraq, Greg. I'd feel more confident about them if I knew he was serving in a combat command, as opposed to somewhere in the Green Zone.

I'd be more confident if there was any real reason to believe that we have "turned a corner" that doesn't once again lead to a dead end. How many times have we heard that increased violence is a sign of the "desperation" of the terrorists/insurgents and that they were on their last legs? How many "corners" have been turned that meant "the end of the insurgency"? (death of Saddam's sons, capture of Saddam,, the "interim constitution", turning over "sovereignty", Najaf, Fallujah, elections being scheduled, elections being held.....all of these things were supposedly signs that the insurgency was doomed.)

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 9, 2005 12:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

we may well see Shi'a appearing the ingrates rapidly indeed as they rail against American forces holding them back from their maximalist goals vis-a-vis their previous Sunni oppressors.

I don't think the Shi'a leadership wants to oppress the Sunni. Sistani has made clear he wants a more equal relationship, and this is just good politics since a harsher path could lead to civil war.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at May 10, 2005 03:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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