NO ONE in the region thinks the "future" they are debating has any reality. Not "western observers" who needed to speak off the record; not the advocates of the possible such as the policy wonks of the International Crisis Group (ICG); not Syrians and Jordanians who live amid the backwash of the U.S. military adventure; and certainly not Iraqis, who have long ago concluded that the superpower is either mad or entirely bent on handing their country over to its enemies in Israel or Iran, if not on brutally exterminating them through encouraging criminal gangs while withholding essentials like electric power.
Joost Hiltermann is the Jordan-based Middle East project director for the ICG, an organization whose board of directors lists half the "wise old men" of Western international relations: figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski and retired General Wesley Clark lend their prestige to the group's work. Hiltermann very generously spoke candidly with our Global Exchange tour group of U.S. peace activists. He is in the business of providing research to governments, not on what has gone wrong in the past, but on what policy options may exist for moving forward with the least violence and human suffering.
ICG was unable to reach internal agreement on whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justifiable. However Hiltermann believes his personal prediction has proved true: the U.S. won the military conflict easily, but has lost the peace. He describes the current situation in Iraq as very fragile indeed, as likely to collapse into inter-communal violence and criminal anarchy as to lead to any kind of stable state.
The most fundamental problem with the U.S. "victory" was that its imported occupation administrators, led by Paul Bremer, acted as if Iraq could be ruled without considering the well being of its Sunni population. Though Sunnis are only 20 percent of Iraqis and are concentrated in regions without oil reserves, they also have provided many of the country's vital technocrats, its secularists, and the years of Baath rule gave them an expectation of government influence. Yet U.S. occupation policy attempted to rule through dividing Iraqis along sectarian religious community lines. When Sunnis were simply excluded from influence in constitutional negotiations between some of the Shiites represented by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq (SCIRI) and Kurdish parties, an authentic, desperate Sunni insurgency mushroomed. The sectarian logic of occupation policy has created a low level civil war. "Full scale civil war could be much worse."
Hiltermann says the U.S. belatedly realized its error last fall, pushed by international pressure, especially from the Saudis. Until an elected Iraqi government was finally formed two weeks ago, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizhad was effectively running the country while trying to encourage constitutional revisions that would diffuse sectarian conflicts. ICG proposes three elements of a path out of the present instability:
- a national unity government representing all communities must be formed. The recently formed government is such an entity, though Hiltermann called it "not very legitimate" despite the electoral and negotiation process from which it arose.
- a thorough revision of the constitution that removes the divisive "federalism" inserted by Kurds and SCIRI-oriented Shiites that would exclude Sunnis from most oil revenues. Whether this can be accomplished will be the test for Iraqis and the U.S. occupation in the next period. Some Shiites, especially those led by the prime minister's Dawa Party and by Moqtada Sadr are nationalists, not inclined to enshrine sectarianism in the basic law. These groups are not beholden to Iran, despite occasional U.S. suggestions to the contrary. However Kurds are not Iraqi nationalists. They have no intention of subjecting their territory to genuine national control; they further demand to control the oil rich city of Kirkuk. Hiltermann emphasized that his research supports the Arab Iraqi position that this demand is just an oil grab; Kurds cannot legitimately claim that Kirkuk was once a majority-Kurdish city. If constitutional negotiations fail, the Sunnis will withdraw from the government and an even more destructive insurgency/civil war will follow.
- after the constitution is rebalanced, then genuinely national Iraqi security forces can be created. The current ones are simply disguised militias; new ones, representing a legitimate, broadly supported government will be required to restore order and civil society. Persons occupying positions of power in the Iraqi government need a realistic, independent vetting by some legitimate judicial body that doesn't currently exist. The country needs not only de-Baathification, but also an impartial review of crimes committed in the post-invasion civil strife.
Hiltermann cannot not urge immediate U.S. withdrawal. A "precipitous" U.S. departure seems to him likely to make a bad situation even worse, akin to the U.S. ignoring Afghanistan and allowing it to fester after the Soviet Union pulled out in the late 1980s.
This was a line we heard as well from "responsible western observers" who cannot be quoted. Domestic U.S. political parties may be off in LaLaLand refighting the Munich crisis of 1938, but the policy wonks are obsessed with the Afghan experience.The U. S. dropped the ball there when it seemed to serve our interests and ended up with the Taliban. The wonks fear we'll do this again. (As in fact, we apparently have... in Afghanistan.)
From our interviews however, this seems a Western point of view. Some Iraqis and other Arabs are afraid of what will happen when the U.S. withdraws, but they also see eventual U.S. departure as essential and inevitable. A Jordanian policy sophisticate who asked not to be named summarized what seems to be the regional concensus succinctly.