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    Middle East
     Dec 14, 2007
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It's a fragile 'quiet' in Iraq
By Brian M Downing

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In recent months, US casualties and Iraqi deaths have dropped markedly. Americans and Iraqis welcome the news but are perplexed by it as well. This is especially so in the US Congress, where confusion and indecision have deepened, and opposition to

the war is even more tepid and incoherent than a year ago.

The administration and the military have cautiously claimed progress; sympathetic figures in Congress and the media have incautiously trumpeted it. They advance a readily understood explanation with an intuitive plausibility that a war-weary public is willing to accept. But momentous shifts rarely have simple causes.

Sunni Arabs
The most common explanation is that the "surge", the US counterinsurgency program designed and implemented by General David Petraeus, is working very well. Based on counterinsurgency doctrines developed late in the colonial era, the "surge" used US troops to drive out insurgents from an area and hold it.

Iraqi troops and officials were then to win popular support by providing services and inducements. The process was to be repeated in contiguous areas, gradually spreading government control across the country, as an oil spot would spread across water. Whatever success the "surge" has thus far enjoyed in Baghdad, it has not spread out from the capital - largely because of the ineptitude or insouciance in the Iraqi military and state, both of which are Shi'ite-dominated and hostile to Sunnis. Services and inducements are more often provided by the Americans than by the national government - hardly in keeping with counterinsurgency doctrine.

Violence has declined for several other reasons, many of which might be reckoned more important than the "surge". Sunni-Shi'ite violence, which spiraled out of control following the Samarra mosque bombing in early 2006, has eased. This has not been due to any reconciliation between the sects, but rather because sectarian violence over the past two-and-a-half years has turned most of Baghdad and a few other major cities into homogeneous semi-fortified enclaves. Mixed neighborhoods have all but disappeared. Furthermore, 2 million or so Sunnis have fled to foreign countries. With so much forced dislocation, the opportunity for sectarian violence is down.

Bruited with the good news of the "surge" - and mistakenly or disingenuously lumped together with it - have been the changes in al-Anbar and Diyali provinces around Baghdad - once insurgent and al-Qaeda havens. Over the past year or so, tribes there have solicited and received US assistance to fight al-Qaeda, which had incurred the wrath of the tribes because of its disrespect for local authorities, customs, and women. Tribal forces and GIs now work together to finish off al-Qaeda.

Former insurgents even draw pay from American coffers. And Anbar and Diyali have seen remarkable declines in US casualties. Proximity to Baghdad invites inference that this resulted from the spreading oil spot of the "surge" - an inference that US officials are unlikely to discourage. However, the tribal volte-face preceded the "surge's" operationalization; the potential for turning the Sunnis was recognized and exploited by local field commanders (and foreign powers), not by the "surge's" directors in the Green Zone; and there has been little if any follow-up into the areas by the Iraqi state.

Changes in Sunni Arab provinces might be best considered in two contexts. First, since the country's inception following World War I, the Sunni Arabs were a minority of the population, yet they controlled the state, army and oil revenue. This suddenly and irreversibly ended when the US-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein and regarded the Shi'ites as natural allies, the Sunnis as defeated enemies harboring varying degrees of hostility.

During years of insurgency and sectarian fighting, Americans troops and Shi'ite militias, separately and without coordination, inflicted hundreds of thousand casualties on the Sunni Arabs and helped drive many into nearby Sunni countries, reducing their population from 18% to about 13%.

Without some sort of political change, the Sunni Arabs faced marginalization, if not extermination. The Shi'ite-dominated state was hardly amenable to a deal with their former oppressors, but by late 2006 the Americans, mired in a vicious and domestically unsustainable insurgency, were amenable to a deal. And so US commanders and tribal councils forged working arrangements. The Americans got reduced casualties, the Sunni Arabs a protector. Historians might well ask someday, who turned whom?

International dynamics constitute a second context. Sunni states around Iraq were wary of ousting Saddam. He had been a useful counter to the Shi'ite revival begun by revolutionary Iran in 1979, and so they financed his long war with Iran in the 1980s. Since then, Sunni states have continued to beware Iran and have looked on domestic Shi'ites as potential fifth columns.

Following Saddam's ouster, the region braced as the Shi'ites of Iraq and Iran filled the vacuum. Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, established or strengthened ties with tribal leaders in the Sunni regions of Iraq. Their diplomatic and intelligence services, whose practical knowledge of tribal politics in and out of their lands greatly exceeds the ken of American counterparts, were almost certainly critical in effecting the volte-face in Anbar, Diyali, and elsewhere in Iraq. Again, who turned whom?

Shi'ite Arabs and Iran
Violence in Shi'ite areas has been based on militias fighting US and British forces and on the militias fighting each other, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Badr Brigades. Both forms of violence are down sharply. Shi'ite efforts to marginalize or drive out the Sunni Arabs have dwindled as the latter sidled up to the US. Skirmishes between Shi'ite militias and US and British troops have also dwindled.

Until recently, US forces had been hammering Shi'ite militias in Baghdad, wreaking havoc on their neighborhoods, suggesting to many Shi'ites that the US now saw the Sunnis as natural allies. Shi'ites saw the fearsome specter of renewed Sunni power in a truncated but nonetheless dangerous state, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, and one day enriched by recent oil finds in Anbar. Sobered by this, Muqtada and Hakim recently inked an agreement to end fighting between their forces, fighting that a few months ago seemed about to engulf the south as the British withdrew.

Iranian pressure might have brought about the agreement. Many of the key Shi'ite parties and militias were formed under Iranian tutelage and continue to receive money and advice from their co-religionists, so Iranian influence has naturally if covertly shaped recent events. Iran has been seeking a golden mean in Iraq: to

Continued 1 2 

Fears grow of post-'surge' woes (Nov 22, '07)

In Iraq, the silence of the lambs (Nov 14, '07)

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Dec 12, 2007)


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