Why Iraq's Not Getting Better

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CONTINUING VIOLENCE: A car damaged by an explosion outside a police station in Baghdad

Every day in Iraq seems to bring a new horror. On Tuesday, for example, it was 47 killed by a car bomb in Baghdad, 11 slain by another in Baquba, 8 dead in a clash between U.S. troops and insurgents in Ramadi — and those were just the major incidents. U.S. casualties have risen every month since the June hand-over of political authority to the interim government of prime minister Iyad Allawi, and the pattern of confrontation is not encouraging. In April, the U.S. military fought insurgents in Fallujah, then battled Moqtada Sadr's men in Najaf in June. The U.S. returned there in August for a second, inconclusive battle and then, in September, found itself once again bombing Fallujah in preparation for another frontal assault. The Sadrists have also created flashpoints in Basra, Nasiriya, Karbala, Samawa, Kut and elsewhere throughout the Shiite south, while the Sunni insurgents have added Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba and others to the list of no-go areas for U.S. troops. And both Sunnis and Shiites continue to wreak havoc on the streets of Baghdad on a daily basis.

U.S. officials now concede that the insurgency is far larger than they first imagined, and it is growing both in numbers of fighters and also in the range and boldness of their attacks. And they acknowledge that whole towns in Sunni heartland, such as Fallujah, Samarra, Ramadi and Baqubah have been turned by insurgents into no-go areas for coalition forces. One measure of the depth of the security crisis in Iraq is the Bush administration's plan to spend money earmarked for reconstruction instead on urgent security priorities.

The security realities of Iraq don't help the Bush reelection campaign's efforts to paint Iraq as a success story for the project of exporting democracy to the Middle East. Indeed, even the U.S. intelligence community is reportedly offering the president a gloomy assessment of Iraq's prospects. But the electorate's attention may be elsewhere, and the administration appears to have persuaded many Americans that if these bombs weren't going off in Baghdad and Basra, they'd be going off in Boston and Biloxi.

Training Day

Still, to counter the impression created by the casualty count that Iraq is spinning out of control, U.S. officials are no longer simply whistling a happy tune. Yes Iraq is out of control, officials on the ground admit, and it could remain that way for some time yet. But, they add, help is on the way: Once sufficient numbers of Iraqi security personnel are trained and deployed — sometime next year — the burden borne by 130,000 U.S. troops will begin to ease. As silver linings go, it's a tempting explanation, both because it admits the current problems are in large part a result of U.S. failures — to devote sufficient resources to training the Iraqis; to recognize that dissolving Saddam's security forces would leave a security vacuum; even perhaps to heed the prewar advice of then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki that stabilizing Iraq would require in the region of 300,000 troops — at the same time as offering a rationale for "staying the course."

There are, however, considerable grounds for skepticism over the extent to which the training of Iraqi forces can transform the situation. Military training involves imparting combat skills and organizational discipline to create efficient fighting units with high levels of morale and confidence. By measure of basic combat skills and organization, the Iraqi security forces may already be substantially superior to Moqtada Sadr's rag-tag Mehdi army, which is composed largely of unemployed young toughs from the Shiite urban ghettoes. The difference between them on the battlefield, however, is based on morale and confidence — in other words, on motivation. The Sadrists are motivated by a strong nationalist sentiment and emboldened by a religious faith both in the righteousness of their cause and the celestial rewards of their "martyrdom." So too are the Sunni insurgents. And thus far, efforts to deploy Iraqi units in the frontline of pitched battles at both Fallujah and Najaf have proven largely ineffective — not because they lack the training to do battle, but because in many instances they lack the motivation to fight under U.S. command against fellow Iraqis. The rate of desertion among Iraqi forces is high, as is the rate of infiltration of these units by insurgents.

The fundamental challenge in transferring security responsibility to Iraqi forces is political. The U.S. must convince Iraqi personnel that they're fighting for Iraq, rather than fighting under the command of an unpopular foreign army. While the administration may have convinced its domestic audience that by transferring political authority to Allawi they have essentially handed the Iraqis back their country, they have yet to persuade many Iraqis of the same idea. Allawi is a U.S. appointee, and his power is based almost entirely on the backing of the U.S. military — a tough assignment in a country where even opinion polls commissioned by U.S. authority have found that a majority wants American forces to leave.

The answer to the political question, U.S. officials hope, will be the elections slated for January, since, if the Iraqis get to choose their own government, they'll have a stake in defending it. That's sound logic, although there are strong indicators that if the Iraqis get to choose their own government it may not look much like the one the U.S. is currently dealing with, and according to current indications of the platforms of a variety of Iraqi politicians may even be committed to asking the U.S. to leave.

Poll Positions

The more immediate problem, is that the current levels of violence make the prospect of a credible election being held four months from now increasingly remote. While U.S. and Iraqi officials continue to insist that the elections will go ahead on schedule, they acknowledge the difficulty presented by the fact that some of the major urban centers of the Sunni heartland are in insurgent hands. Prime Minister Allawi's proposal that a poll could be held without voting in those areas where violence precludes it could essentially break up the country. Already the Kurdish northeast is showing every intention of cutting ties to an increasingly chaotic center, and allowing an election without the participation of much of the Sunni heartland could presage further Balkanization.

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