The Japanese have a humbling saying "Issan saki wa yami" which means, roughly, "an inch in front of my face, total darkness." That pretty much sums things up when it comes to predicting what's next in Iraq: no one has any idea.There is no shortage of dreams and plans: President Bush's military surge, barely a month old, is already proving to be a larger operation than was originally advertised. Army officials now admit that as many as 30,000 additional U.S. troops are involved, about 50% more than many expected. True believers in the surge hope that by September or so, U.S. forces operating more aggressively in Baghdad will have separated warring Shi'ite and Sunni militias and created the political breathing room Iraqi leaders need to make difficult compromises on power sharing, oil revenues, government jobs and military posts. "Ultimately," says Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, "what you want to see is a constricted operating environment for militias. The bad guys run to Iran and stay there. And you want to see the by-products of daily life return: the garbage picked up, the power back on, people going to work, students going to school."
But outside of Bush's most ardent supporters, there are few optimists about Iraq's immediate future. Experts no longer even talk of outcomes. They speak only of trends. Here are a few to look for:
THE POLITICIANS DITHER
To a man, the pols in the Green Zone are venal and inept, less interested in power sharing or fence mending than in strengthening their positions relative to each other. Even if the surge produces a moment a month or a year of relative calm, count on Iraqi political leaders to miss the opportunity. If they fail, there will be no sustainable cease-fire in the civil war.
THE SHI'ITES CONSOLIDATE
Though the Shi'ites and their militias have lowered their profiles during the surge, they are expected to re-emerge when it is over and quickly consolidate control not only in the eastern half of the country but in Baghdad as well. The Shi'ites have their own complex web of loyalties: some take guidance from Iran; some are loyal to Muslim clerics; some owe their clout to oil revenues. But all Shi'ite groups agree that they need to present a united front politically or risk losing the power they have gained after centuries of repression.
THE DIVISION CONTINUES
Though practically everyone in Washington will deny it, Iraq will continue to split into a loose confederation of three parts: a Kurdish north, with a growing economy, foreign investment and plenty of oil revenues; a Shi'ite-dominated south, with strong ties to Iran; and a center that is up for grabs between Shi'ites and Sunnis. No region will be impervious to violence: the Kurds will be host to a fight over Kirkuk in the north, where Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs all have claims to the city, and suicide bombings have increased as Americans focus on Baghdad. Meanwhile, many believe the Shi'ites will drive the Sunnis out into enclaves of resistance all over central Iraq and that a bloody ethnic cleansing could follow.
THE AMERICANS PULL BACK
Whether or not the surge is a success, many U.S. military officers believe the U.S. will begin to withdraw its forces to more secure areas by this fall. Already, Tony Blair has announced plans to reduce Britain's 7,100-member force by more than 2,000 and redeploy the rest to a secure air base near Basra, where they will train Iraqis, guard the border and mount strikes against troublemakers as required. The Americans can be expected to follow this model though on a much larger scale all over Iraq. That way both sides can claim victory. The majority Shi'ites can say they have taken control of most of the country from the Americans, and Washington can say the surge paved the way for a transition to democratic rule while U.S. forces continue the fight against the terrorists in Iraq.
Next After Castro