Juan Cole: Where things stand in Iraq now





The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate blinked on a troop withdrawal timetable today. The Warner plan, which substitutes 19 benchmarks to be achieved by the Iraqi government for the exact departure dates of US troops, puts some reporting restrictions on Bush but essentially gives him free rein to continue to prosecute the Iraq War as he pleases. Despite now being technically in the minority, Warner in some ways is still leading the Senate on Iraq War policy. Since he says he does want the US out of Iraq eventually, this is not as bad a piece of news as it could be. But those who want a quick US departure, like Russ Feingold, are deeply disappointed.

Apparently the spending supplemental bill will be split into Iraq and non-Iraq items, and the two parts will be voted on separately. Many Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are saying they will vote against their own bill. But the Republicans probably have enough Democratic allies to pass it in both bodies.

It turns out that if the American public really wanted out of Iraq in short order, it needed to elect about 11 more Democrats [or Hagel- Paul Republicans] to the Senate than it did. It is a little unlikely that Americans will, as John Edwards proposed, use Memorial Day as an occasiont to launch large numbers of massive demonstrations against the war. Edwards insists that only an American withdrawal can hope to force Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites to seek reconciliation with one another.

In the meantime, the Americans leading the Iraq mission on the ground have some ideas for how to bridge to the ultimate withdrawal, which has now been delayed.

Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul Zahra of AP report that the Sadr Movement is positioning itself to take over Iraq if the al-Maliki government falls. The Sadrists would have to put together a pan-Islamic Sunni-Shiite alliance to form a government. They have 32, and might be able to get the 24 Da'wa delegates to join with them. The Sunni Arabs have 58, which would make 114 if the Sadrists could pull it off. They would have to be joined by 24 other Shiites, whether independents or Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Since the Mahdi Army harbors a lot of death squad murderers of Sunnis, the notion seems a bit far-fetched to me. But Sadrists and fundamentalist Sunnis do agree on a lot: 1) US troops out now, 2) Islamic canon law (shariah) as the law of the land, 3) strong central government rather than regional confederacies. And, I'm told that the Sunni delegates in parliament are mostly on good terms with Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Sadrists demand a US withdrawal from Iraq on a short timetable.

WaPo was leaked to on the subject of the new Crocker-Petraeus plan for Iraq. Key elements:

1. Back Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rather than trying to organize a new government.

2. Expand and build up the Iraqi Army, which is less purely sectarian than some other security forces in Iraq.

3. And then implementation of 3 points:

a. Protect the local population from the insurgents so as to allow them to become independent actors in civil society.

b. Increase capacity and efficiency of government ministries and their integraton with provincial administrations.

c. Purge Iraq's government and security forces of"sectarian abusers," replacing them with"Iraqi nationalists."

Crocker and Petraeus are among the more capable US leaders ever to be involved in the Iraq misadventure, and they have excellent instincts about what needs to be done. Better, they have experience and information, and know how to analyze it.

But I think we have to be realistic about the possibilities here. The US is getting out of Iraq, if not in 2008, then surely in the period after the inauguration of the next president; and if not altogether, then very largely. As one officer quoted in the WaPo piece noted, there is going to be a"giant sucking sound" when the withdrawal occurs.

So by 2009 it is desirable that there be a functioning civil government and a much strengthened Iraqi army. (An unlikely outcome, admittedly, but people making practical policy in Baghdad have to at least try.) In essence, I don't see the Crocker-Petraeus plan as necessarily a bid to stay militarily in Iraq but as possibly a way of transitioning out of the occupation and toward an Iraq that can stand on its own two feet.

As a set of ideals, I don't find anything to criticize in the plan as presented. I can think of a lot of practical obstacles to its success.

I am not sure that Nuri al-Maliki is capable of leading the whole country in an even-handed manner. He was a key member of the De-Baathification Commission and finds it difficult to accept the need to seek reconciliation with ex-Baathists. It isn't just a matter of his character. Any old-time Islamic Da'wa Party apparatchik would feel pretty much the same. Al-Maliki has a blind spot when it comes to the Mahdi Army, moreover, seeing it as a kind of Shiite neighborhood protection committee and necessary to protect Shiite neighborhoods from [Sunni] Baathi and Salafi bombings.

Moreover, al-Maliki is very much a minority prime minister. He has lost the support of the Islamic Virtue Party (15 MPs of 275) and for the most part of the Sadrists (32 MPs). The Sunni Arab parties are still talking about withdrawing from the"national unity" government. I'd say on some issues his majority in parliament is probably razor thin by now, no more than 143 (you need 138 for a simple majority). Any 50 MPs can introduce a vote of no confidence against the PM, and the Sadrists are now threatening to do this. I agree with Crocker and Petraeus that since al-Maliki is the elected prime minister, the world is stuck with him. I'm just wondering if he can bear the burden the plan places on him.

I just wonder if there are any genuine Iraqi nationalists left who have any real political power or significant constituencies. Getting the really dirty death squad leaders out of the Ministry of Interior would be all to the good, if it can be done. But the abusers are likely Badr Corps, and Badr is supported by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is the leading party in the Shiite south and has a leadership position in parliament and in several ministries. So a US purge of Badr is pretty difficult to pull off at this point. Badr even has members in parliament to push for their interests in the legislature.

Moreover, the Kurdish leaders seem to me not really committed to Iraq, with the possible exception of Talabani, and do not behave as"Iraqi nationalists." They are a net plus with regard to security and the economy, but they continually burrow away to weaken the central government and deny it prerogatives.

I also wonder if the goals of strengthening the Iraqi civil bureaucracy and army, and the implicit goal of a continued alliance between the US and the Kurds, are really compatible.

Probably the US leaders are coding Sadrists as abusive sectarians. But if you just marginalize the Sadrists, you are creating a world of trouble in Baghdad and the south. Playing good Sadrists and bad Sadrists will be very difficult, in part because it won't be easy to tell which is which. And, as we saw above, the Sadrists are a power to be reckoned with. If there are provincial elections, as the US calls for, they could do very well in the southern provinces now, assuming there isn't voting fraud by SIIC, their Shiite rival.

Some of the Sunni Arab parliamentarians and ministers, moreover, are linked to guerrilla groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

In addition, the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement is in a position to sabotage a lot of the progress that could be made by implementing this plan.

Toby Dodge is quoted in the WaPo article. He gave another recent interview in which he seemed pretty pessimistic about current plans working out. Replying to a question about the moment when the US embassy personnel will need to be evacuated by helicopter from Baghdad, he advised that the architects of the US embassy give it"a large roof." I fear that may indicate what odds he gives the new plan of succeeding.

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