Iraq: The Choice

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September 26, 2007: Five months ago, only about 20 percent of Baghdad was considered under U.S. or Iraqi government control. Various Shia and Sunni militias held sway in the rest. Then the "Surge" began, in the form of some additional 10,000 American combat troops sent into the city. By July, about half the city was under control, with militias, gangster and terrorist groups forced into other neighborhoods, or out of the city. Now it's 54 percent under control, as U.S. troops prepare to go after the Shia militias in Sadr City (eastern Baghdad.) The major problem is corruption and a lack of police loyal to the government. Some 90 percent of the police in Baghdad are Shia, and feel safer looking to religious or tribal leaders. The old Saddam era police commanders were nearly all Sunni Arabs, and loyal to Saddam and Sunni Arab tribes. So the current police commanders are all relatively new to the job. Most of them are not very good at it, and it shows. The police like having American troops around, especially when police are trying to establish control over a neighborhood that had previously obeyed some warlord, cleric or gang boss. Saddam may be gone, but his "strong man" style of ruling by terror lives on. That's an ancient tradition in this part of the world, having been mentioned in four thousand year old written records. Kind of makes it a hard habit to break. Police commanders take comfort in the fact that the U.S. troops are unbeatable in a fight, and their intelligence is often superior to whatever information the cops have. Local tribal leaders will generally be more eager to talk to American troops commanders, rather than Iraqi police bosses. The chiefs know where the real power lies.

Corruption, and the "culture of theft" is a major impediment to peace in Iraq. Too many Iraqis are eager to steal, and see this as a worthy way to achieve financial security. Most Iraqis profess to admire honesty and hard work. But for decades, there has been only Saddam's Sunni Arab thugs, stealing whatever they wanted. They even stole from each other, forcing Saddam to judge which thief would keep what. One nasty side effect of all this is the widespread belief that the Sunni Arabs are superior fighters and killers. This was all Shia Arabs saw for many years. Attempts to fight back were met with savage reprisals. Now, Shia Arabs see Sunni Arabs, even friendly ones, as a threat that must be eliminated. When Americans berate Iraqi officials for not getting Sunni and Shia to work together, it doesn't register. Most Shia want the Sunni Arabs dead, or gone. Reconciliation isn't even on the list of possibilities. Tell the Americans what they want to hear, and keep going after the Sunni Arabs.

The surge has hurt the Sunni Arab terrorist operations badly. Suicide bombings are way down, and are now directed mainly at targets the terrorists consider of the highest priority. Thus the recent attack against police headquarters in Basra, a Shia city that normally sees few terrorist bombs. Up north, a suicide bomber attacked in a mosque, during peace talks between Sunni Arab and Shia militias. Al Qaeda took credit for that one, considering the Sunni militia (the 1920 Brigade) to be traitors for turning against terrorism.

With suicide bombings down by more than half over the Summer, American troops are going after terrorist groups in detail, seeking to kill or arrest key members (leaders and technicians) of these groups. This disruption of terrorist groups had led to a reduction in American casualties. Combat deaths peaked last May at 4.2 per day, and have since fallen to 2.4 a day. But winning on the battlefield is easy compared to the problems of getting the Iraqis to look after their own affairs. Maintaining law and order, running the economy and effectively spending tax revenues are all proving too difficult for the Iraqis. Those who have lived in the West, tell their brethren back home that all this is possible. They have seen it. Americans berate the Iraqis, demanding that they step up and prove that they are as competent as Westerners. This is what nearly all Iraqis say they want. But the space between wanting and doing often seems unbridgeable. The peaceful and prosperous Kurds up north offer some hope, but the Kurds are not Arabs, something the Kurds never let the Arabs forget.

The war in Iraq will not be decided in the streets, with guns, but within the thousands of Iraqis that hold positions of power. These Iraqis have to decide whether they want another dictatorship, or something better. It's not entirely clear which way this will go.

 

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