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Iraq: Last Chance

By Robert Zelnick

To concede that going to war in Iraq was a grave mistake of policy is not to embrace the conclusion that an immediate pull-out -- or one by a declared date moderated by conditions on the ground -- would today serve U.S. interests. The country may have entered the war with erroneous notions of the state of Saddam's wmd programs. It may have underestimated the resilience of former Baathists and regime loyalists, their access to weapons and the help they would get from foreign jihadists. It may have failed to anticipate that a society divided and oppressed by an authoritarian ruler might erupt into ethnic and religious conflict when that leader departs. It may have been naïve in thinking that an externally modeled Iraqi democratic government would opt for secular rather than sectarian parliamentary representation and that its near perfect transition would transform the region into a galaxy of democratic states. And it may have underestimated the number of troops needed to occupy a country of 25 million. Yet the answer is not to compound those mistakes by leaving in a way that makes large-scale civil war nearly inevitable, pushes the country into the lap of its Iranian neighbor, or advertises the U.S. as an unreliable friend, a hesitant hegemon, and a rewarder of those terrorists with the tenacity to outlast the behemoth. No, when a Great Power puts its leg in a snare, there must be some cure other than amputation.

I spent most of August in Iraq assessing the situation on the ground with the help of U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel, Iraqi journalists, translators, contract workers, and, in one case, a senior government official. In addition to day trips in and around Baghdad, I spent two days in the disputed Kirkuk area, a place where the character of the new Iraq may well be defined.

I had the feeling during much of my visit that the time of illusion had passed. No longer could failure be disguised as the invention of lazy journalists confined to the secure Green Zone or their biased editors back home. With Baghdad's sixty-mile circumference defining one of the world's largest killing zones and Anbar Province in the Sunni heartland locked in a bloody stalemate, no one was likely to be impressed by fallback reiterations that fourteen of the country's eighteen provinces were secure, averaging fewer than two violent incidents per day, or that three-fourths of the country receives more hours of electricity per day than it had before the war. All eyes were (justifiably) on Baghdad, and the capital's slide into chaos showed no signs of reprieve. In an act of arrogant complacency worthy of Marie Antoinette, the Council of Representatives went on more than a month's holiday, ignoring U.S. pleas to remain in emergency session at least until the situation in the capital improved.

But with U.S. public opinion turning sharply against the war, soon to be reflected in a landscape-changing election for control of Congress, pressure to produce visible progress on the ground weighed heavily on the minds of Coalition military and diplomatic leaders. "The center of gravity for both Americans and Iraqis right now is something hard to measure: Time," observed Colonel David Gray, commander of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division operating primarily in the Kurdish North. "How much time and perseverance do we have?" The consensus among those I interviewed was that if a dramatic reversal in the country's fortunes could not be demonstrated within the next 6-12 months, the call to establish a deadline for withdrawal would become a cacophony of irresistible demands.

The Coalition, however, neither bears the burden nor enjoys the luxury of singular command. The Iraqis have both sovereignty and international legitimacy and with them all the trappings, if not the capability, of a full-fledged government. More and more, the big decisions that will make or break the country fall into Iraqi hands -- reconciliation, federalism, the divvying up of oil revenues, the status of Kirkuk, and the future of sectarian militias. "We could do everything right and still lose," said General Casey on a blistering day near the end of August. Perhaps. Still, there is a difference of some consequence between the failure to achieve optimum objectives and defeat. The former we can accommodate; the latter we should not.

The new sheriff in town

The troubles of Baghdad did not begin, as common lore has it, with February's destruction of the Shia's Golden Mosque in Samarra. Deteriorating security in and around the Iraqi capital has been a fact of life since the heady early days following the U.S. invasion. Veterans of that period wistfully recall lunches with friends in downtown Baghdad and travel by public taxicab or unarmored embassy car. Gradually those memories were replaced by accounts of fevered dashes to the airport -- body armor in place -- steep-angle takeoffs and landings, and midnight helicopter rides often punctuated by the smack of bullets against the aircraft and the dispatch of flares to distract ground fire.

To the visitor, Baghdad now seems a city in panic. Tens of thousands of Sunnis and Shia have fled. The imprecise Baghdad estimate is 125,000; nationally it is 300,000. Those who stay live in constant fear, locking themselves in their homes and businesses, wary of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, though it is increasingly difficult to ascribe any kind of logic to the rising wave of violence. When I sat down with a group of Iraqi engineers in Baghdad, they could speak of nothing else. "I live on Palestine Street, which is supposed to be one of the nicest areas, and still there is no water and no electricity," said one man. "People get killed, but nobody knows why. People say it is for religious reasons, for political reasons, but we have many friends and family members who are killed and we know they have none of these associations. We are living in hell."

Though it can be virtually impossible to distinguish which victims were felled in the name of sectarian violence and which were taken down by what has become widespread and virtually unchecked criminal activity, it is commonly agreed that Iraq's private militias are at the heart of the problem. Nearly two dozen militias are implicated in much of the violence afflicting Baghdad. Many are close to, if not part of, the Shia political establishment, a status insulating them not only from dismemberment by the government but equally from existential challenges by the Coalition. Compounding the problem, every member of Parliament, each government minister, and many party officials are entitled to hire "personal security details" for protection. Paid gunmen by day, members of these groups often moonlight as murder-for-hire thugs, kidnappers and petty criminals, sometimes even operating in the same uniforms they wore to work. The Coalition now estimates their numbers at six to eight thousand. If Baghdad is to be pacified, there is no question that the private militias will have to be dismantled and the security details controlled.

But the militia problem has been building for years, and the more well-ingrained organizations have ripped a page from the Hezbollah handbook, ingratiating themselves with the population by filling in government gaps in the provision of security and social services. Though residents complain -- and the Coalition concedes -- that the city of Baghdad receives only two to four hours of electricity per day, looking out from my thirteenth-floor window at the Al Rashid hotel I saw the night sky aglow with twinkling lights. When I asked an Iraqi translator to explain the phenomenon, he said the power was coming from community generators -- often provided by sectarian militias. At the end of our meeting, I asked the same translator what people in the streets were saying about the situation in Lebanon. He responded with exasperation, "The normal Iraqi citizen is not interested in other issues -- he is deprived of electricity, water, he fears the next car bomb, the next terrorist attack. What happened in Lebanon over a month, we had in a week." The average Iraqi simply wants some relief.

According to a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the largest of the militia groups, the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development, was originated by Iraqi defectors and prisoners of war during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and was organized, trained, and financed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Adopted by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri) headed by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the Badr Corps increasingly came under the control of former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr. Sunni political leaders have frequently complained that the organization is engaged in the wholesale practice of detention, intimidation, and murder. Responses from sciri leaders include denials of improper conduct, claims that militias are necessary to protect their people from Sunni terrorism, and promises either to disband the militias or to integrate them into one branch or another of Iraq Security Forces. Despite the rhetoric, no tangible changes are in evidence.

The Mahdi Army -- Moqtada al Sadr's militia -- is popular among poorer Shiite cities in the south, though its core strength can be found in Baghdad's Sadr City. The Mahdi clashed twice with U.S. forces in 2004 and has exchanged fire with the Sadr organization, incidents in which scores have died. While radical and impulsive, al Sadr seems to have developed a clear sense of priorities built around his desire to see a quick end to the U.S. presence. Accordingly, he has backed a "total amnesty" approach for the Sunnis, hoping to encourage them to end the insurrection. And his refusal to endorse Hakim's plan to move quickly toward a sharply federated Iraq, a move that would have placed the country's vast southern oil deposits in the hands of nine Shia provinces, led to a shelving of the issue for a period of two years. But while al Sadr can be eclectic in his approach to certain issues, his militia has been a brutal force for ethnic cleansing in the slums of Baghdad.

Other Shia militias gained prominence through interaction with Coalition forces. The Wolf Brigade, a commando police spin-off from the Badr organization, fought with U.S. forces defending the northern city of Mosul during the early days of the insurrection. Its members were featured on a U.S.-financed Arab-language program, Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, receiving confessions from captured terrorists. Sunni leaders claimed the group's real activities included unlawful arrest, torture, and mass murder.

The Sunnis, of course, have their own militias as well, the largest being the Omar Brigades, formed in 2005 specifically as a counterweight to Shia militia activity and operating mainly in the majority Sunni districts of western Baghdad. Noteworthy is the fact that the Omar Brigades opt to affiliate with al Qaeda. No prospect is more troubling to Coalition commanders than a broad potential alliance between Sunnis who have been waging a domestic insurrection and the community of international jihadists inspired if not led directly by al Qaeda. Such an alliance could provide a limitless source of manpower for Iraq's insurgents while offering al Qaeda the sort of recruitment, training and operational base it once enjoyed in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Among the population, those militias whose existence preceded the U.S. invasion derive a certain amount of popular legitimacy from their long-term efforts on behalf of their constituents. However, many of the militias now operating in Iraq are directly tied to the dizzying political expansion that has taken place since 2003. A redistribution of power would have been complicated under any circumstances, but Iraq's oil wealth created a kind of high-stakes game in a country where history teaches that winner takes all. The militias were built to take by terror what would not be theirs otherwise. As one Iraqi described it, "Before 2003 we had one party, now we have more than 100. In our history there were five parties: Baath, Kurd, Communist, Dawa and the Badr militia. We don't know where the new parties come from, but each party must register their people, so they kidnap and kill people for registering. And every party has its own militia. It's like the mafia in the U.S. The system must be cured from the root. It must be repaired all over Iraq. We must clear the weapons from all the militias. Only the government should have weapons. Only the government should make the law."

While the antecedents to the current wave of terror in Baghdad thus predate the destructive attack against the Golden Mosque of Samarra, without question that blast served to galvanize much of the Shia community. "The Iraqi Shia always held to the view that religion did not belong in politics," noted British General Robert Fry, the Coalition's second-in-command. "Their doctrine was one of endurance. But at Samarra they abandoned the doctrine of endurance. They realized they did not have to put up with Sunni bullying any more. They began to give up the idea of sharing power. They realized they were a large enough group."

No longer content to play their historic role of Islam's victim, the Shia lashed out with fury against their Sunni neighbors, pulling back from communal violence only at the urging of their spiritual leaders, including al Sadr, whose periodic displays of tactical moderation seem intended to place no obstacle in the path of U.S. withdrawal. Even with the instant catastrophe averted, Shia death squads, some still wearing the uniforms distributed by parent militias or political factions, accelerated terrorist raids against Sunni residents, principally in the mixed Baghdad districts. Their well-documented tactics include verbal warnings -- often delivered at the point of a gun -- to quit a job, sell a house, or move from the neighborhood or district, as well as physical beatings, torture, kidnapping, and/or murder. Each night, corpses wash ashore along the banks of the Tigris River. Others are found -- often headless or showing other affects of torture -- on streets, in buildings or in trash-strewn lots. The central morgue has become a polling booth for the dead, a counting-house of atrocity. The number of murders has grown from month to month, the Sunnis retaliating with militia strikes of their own, or more devastatingly, with suicide bombers or explosives packed into cars, vans and suvs -- an indiscriminate form of slaughter. In July alone, some 3,200 residents of Baghdad lost their lives in mindless sectarian strife.

Before the crisis peaked, Prime Minister Maliki had declared Baghdad security his Number One priority. But as his rather small Dawa party is politically beholden to the Islamic parties controlling the key militias, his words had the bite of a toothless dog. "He's two for two," a young American officer joked. "Remember when he flew to Basra and said, 'Clean this place up or I'll do it for you'? We're still waiting." Those on the ground say that gangs, tribes, and political factions vying to control the region's oil wealth have turned Basra into a replica of Chicago in the 1920s -- sans Eliot Ness. A kinder, gentler, but still unflattering assessment of the prime minister was offered by military intelligence: "Maliki is a compromise candidate with limited political capital. He invested a great deal of that political capital in Basra. He went down there, declared a state of emergency, called for peace, and nothing happened."

Maliki is not helped, of course, by ineffectual security forces and a judicial system that seems to be running a catch-and-release program for criminals. The Iraqi Army is nearing completion of the first stage of what is intended to be a three-stage build-up and modernization process. By year's end it is expected to reach its full numerical strength of 160,000 personnel in 10 divisions, 120,000 of which will be trained for combat. By the end of 2007, the hope is to refine combat skills, increase professionalism -- particularly within the officer corps -- and generally accomplish what the term "Year of Consolidation" suggests. But the army is neither as national as the name implies nor as professional. Half the divisions are National Guard units and thus have a distinctly local flavor. Two are former Kurdish militia units, known as peshmerga, whose loyalties are hardly to the national Iraqi state.

Moreover, neither the Army itself nor the national legislature has yet seen fit to pass anything resembling a Uniform Code of Military Justice. Military analysts reviewing Iraq's performance in the first Gulf War were shocked to find the degree to which most units were undermanned due to liberal leave practices and high desertion rates. The identical situation persists a decade-and-a-half later, compounded by the absence of any code to proscribe, prosecute, and punish such acts as derelictions of military duty. As a result, soldiers come and go pretty much as they please. One entire division quit Anbar Province combat to return home; another declined to join Coalition forces in their dangerous effort to relieve the sectarian strife in Baghdad's militia-infested neighborhoods.

Still, there are places where the army has accepted the lead and fought well. Certainly it is far more trusted by all segments of the Iraqi community than either the local or national police. This hardly amounts to a vote of confidence, however. Overall, they have not matched up well against the insurgents. "The Iraqis don't trust the Iraqi Forces because they see that when terrorists attack, they fail," an Iraqi translator explained. "The gunmen are more qualified, better equipped and have more funding than the Security Forces." And more support from public officials, it often seems. The Iraqi prisons, meanwhile, are overloaded and the courts still marked by corruption. "The Iraqis have lost confidence in the Army, in the U.S. and in the government," said one Iraqi journalist. "Even the army themselves have lost confidence because of the weakness of the judges. The government detains people, but then releases them in four or six months so that person can go kill whoever informed on him." Be it a matter of will or a matter of means, however, the end result of Maliki's inaction was the same: The militias continued to operate unfettered, and Baghdad suffered the consequences.

With Maliki's failure to abate the crisis and the Chamber of Representatives on holiday, General Casey took a decisive gamble of throwing three new brigades -- two Iraqi and one U.S. -- into Baghdad. They would concentrate on such troublesome districts as Dora, al Mariyah, and Ghazaliya, where the ethnic mix invited sectarian violence. To provide the 6,700-8,000 American troops required, Casey pulled some forces back from Anbar Province. This was a popular move with counterinsurgency strategists who had long been preaching that such campaigns are won not by chasing small groups of enemy fighters across the boondocks, but rather by first securing major population centers and spreading control out from there like an oil slick. In fact, Casey had been doing little more than holding his own in Anbar, where his military intelligence argued that an additional division was needed in order to carry the fight to the enemy successfully. But the Baghdad move also meant at least a temporary increase in the number of U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, something that would test the patience of a wearying U.S. public and an increasingly hostile political community.

The Dora district was the first objective of Operation Together Forward. Coalition forces went house to house searching for suspicious activities and equipment. Iraqis by law are entitled to keep one gun and ammunition, but additional weapons, particularly such contraband as mortars, shaped charges or bomb-making equipment, were confiscated and their owners detained. Residents were questioned about militia activity in the area and asked to alert authorities should the bad guys return. The troops then participated in such civic ventures as removing garbage from the area or providing fuel for private generators.

Some days after that first Together Forward operation, I rode in an armored Humvee on a "battlefield circulation" of the district. The dusty marketplace, closed during the period of acute terror, was open again, though the few vendors present eyed passers-by warily from behind meager piles of produce. And though it might employ some 400 Iraqis, a nearby sewage plant was still closed because Coalition forces could not convince the population that the road to and from it was safe to travel. Nearly a month later, after assessing reports of civilian deaths from a variety of sources, the command determined that August deaths from sectarian strife had been down by about a third from the record July totals. But today those numbers are again climbing. "In Iraq we are continually confronted by the fact that we can establish local security, but seem unable to exploit beyond that," said General Fry. The militias are not only part of the initial problem; they also undermine the Iraqi Security Forces charged with holding the cleared neighborhoods through a two-pronged campaign of influence and infiltration.

Until very recently, the U.S. had dodged the militia question altogether, declaring it an issue to be addressed by the Iraqis. U.S. forces confronted the armed units militarily only in response to hostile actions, as with the 2004 battles with al Sadr's Mahdi Army in Najaf. But as the weeks passed, U.S. officials began going public with complaints that the government was blocking efforts by Coalition forces to conduct operations in districts where Shia militias were the problem, principally Sadr City, the vast slum housing some 2.5 million Iraqis, the majority of them Shia loyal to the Mahdi Army. Under agreement with the Maliki government, Coalition forces required permission before initiating action against any of the militias, and here none has been forthcoming. During our late August meeting, it was clear that General Casey was losing patience with those who argued the militias played a legitimate security role. "The militias are about raw political power, not protection," he said firmly. "I say baloney to anyone who claims otherwise." But he was not ready to dismiss the prime minister as the wrong man for the job. "We're 90 days in and it will take 4-6 months to get his legs under him." A month later, General Peter Chiarelli, the man in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq, evinced his frustration and told the Los Angeles Times, "We can't have armed militias competing with Iraq's security forces." He added, somewhat contrapuntally, that we must "trust the prime minister" to determine when the militias must be disarmed.

Whether and when the new sheriff will take on the tough guys remains an unanswered question. A five-point plan calling for the integration of as many militia fighters as feasible into the regular armed forces, training others for civilian government service, providing those who fail to qualify for either with suitable pensions, purchasing surplus weaponry, and encouraging the government to replace the militias as providers of such vital items as generators and pure water has been on the books since the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority -- but little effort has been made to move from conception to implementation. "It's complex for the young soldier on the street," explained Lt. General Martin Dempsey, head of training for Iraqi security forces. "The government does not yet have an implementing policy on how to disarm the militias, so the young soldier is not sure if he has the complete backing of the government to deal with those militias when he sees them on the streets, or at a checkpoint." Even as they sweep today through troubled Baghdad districts, Coalition forces and their Iraqi allies are careful to avoid picking fights with the Mahdi or the Badr militias or others with powerful political ties. So Operation Together Forward staggers, and terror continues to stalk the streets of Baghdad.

On the docket

During the months preceding my trip, the question of whether Iraq had succumbed to civil war gained momentum in the U.S. media. Academics cited the standard definition -- that a civil war is a conflict between a state and at least one nonstate actor in which 1,000 or more battlefield casualties occur -- while the administration hedged, calling the situation "closer than ever" but still "not a classic civil war at this stage." Then on August 20, in a piece for the Washington Post titled "Iraq Runneth Over: What Next?" Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack declared, "The debate is over: by any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war," and went on to suggest U.S. focus should shift to containing regional spillover.

To agree that Iraq is in a state of civil war is, in some ways, to simplify the situation on the ground. While Baghdad's big problem is sectarian strife, outside the capital ethnic warfare takes a backseat to other issues. "There are three different wars going on in this country," remarked one intelligence officer. "There's the Kurdish independence movement, the insurgency, and a revolution to overthrow the Baathist controlled structure -- that's what the death squads are about: making sure the Sunnis will never rise again." Any solution to the violence must both take into account these disparate elements and recognize their interrelation. The Shia, for example, will not hear of dismembering their militias before the insurgency is contained, and the insurgents will not lay down their arms until they are convinced the oil spoils of the Kurdish north and Shia south will be equitably divided. "You and I and Prime Minister Maliki are not going to talk al Qaeda into any kind of political solution," offered General Dempsey, "but the rest of the fight in Iraq is more about the distribution of power, and the establishment of a government that has the trust and confidence of the people. What we can do is give the government the time to get its legs under it, and to find this thing called national reconciliation. We will draw down either because they have succeeded, or because they have demonstrated an unwillingness to succeed."

On June 25, in a well-promoted speech to the Parliament, Maliki unveiled a 24-point "national reconciliation initiative" inviting the insurgents to relinquish their fight and lay down their weapons in exchange for amnesty, re-inclusion in government and society, and a vaguely worded compensation package. That so little has come of the proposal in subsequent months suggests the compromises Maliki had to make to get one group or another on board watered down the proposal to the extent that it lost all appeal to its most essential audience: those Sunnis waging the insurgency. It also suggests that when conditions on the ground are allowed to deteriorate, the climate necessary to sustain talks with a reasonable prospect of success is destroyed.

Under pressure from his own Shia parties and in the infancy of his own prime ministership, Maliki agreed to limit his proposed amnesty to "all those who have not taken part in criminal and terrorist acts and war crimes and crimes against humanity," a plan that might well have been called "amnesty for the innocent." Maliki also said that "Saddamists" were to be excluded from the amnesty, a sentiment echoed by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who identified as "irreconcilables" only "those who want the old regime back and those who are al Qaeda terrorist supporters." Left open was the question of insurgents who had attacked U.S. forces with improvised explosive devices and other weapons commonly employed by the weaker party in an asymmetrical warfare contest. But a glimpse of the sort of reception awaiting that move was provided by Michigan Senator Carl M. Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, in an interview with Fox News Sunday: "For Heaven's sake, we liberated that country. We got rid of a horrific dictator. We've paid a tremendous price. More than 2,500 Americans have given up their lives. The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable."

But a significant percentage of those awaiting amnesty are civil servants, not armed combatants, and the absence of their expertise is sorely felt among those now charged with rehabilitating the country. "Unless you have a trained bureaucracy, you don't have a government," said one exasperated colonel assigned to the agricultural sector. "You can change the heads of ministries all day long and it won't make a bit of difference. We've got projects going where the contractors won't show up anymore because the bills haven't been paid." And agriculture is not the only area suffering from a dearth of trained bureaucrats. Across the board -- from water to oil to the training and provision of the Iraqi Security Forces -- the country is crippled by the lack of bureaucratic competence, the absence of a civil service, and a corrosive ethic of corruption. Western observers say the energy infrastructure has suffered more from ministerial inattention and outright thievery than from enemy sabotage. The area known since biblical times as the "Fertile Crescent" can barely feed itself because the science of agriculture has been forgotten. U.S. military officers say they can train Iraqi recruits to become effective and disciplined soldiers, but providing the pay, benefits, legal infrastructure and family support necessary to sustain the army in the field is a task that for the time being still seems well beyond the capabilities of Iraq's incompetent defense ministry. Adding insult to injury, though "capacity building" is a common refrain among the U.S. officials, those in the field complain the job is getting short shrift: "We've got third-string people helping in the ministries on a good day," said one. "We should have our best people here. We have four econ officers at the State Department -- we should have 400."

For both strategic and practical reasons, luring the Sunnis back to the fold ought to be the administration's top priority. The foreign Jihadists may never be denied the ability to kill their fellow Muslims with car bombs and suicide devices. But if they are rejected by Sunni insurgents who decide to work within the system, they have lost the war. Maliki, new in the job and dependent for support on the larger Shia parties, never did much politicking on behalf of his reconciliation plan. Nor did he address the many ambiguities and inconsistencies. While the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc endorsed it, no campaign was waged on its behalf in the hope of creating a constituency. Defenders of Iraqi democracy often remind visitors of the birthing pains experienced by the American colonies as they sought to form a nation conducting its affairs under a rule of law. True enough, but let us not forget the exquisite efforts of Hamilton and Madison in explaining the new Constitution to their countrymen and the impact of their insights both in rallying public support for the document and in establishing a body of anticipatory precedent with regard to the relationships it defines. Iraq could well have used a set of Federalist Papers to articulate and refine the way Maliki's amnesty plan might work, even had he sought single-mindedly to organize supporters behind it. Instead he watched idly as terror in the streets of Baghdad escalated and amnesty took a back seat to appalling violence. "South Africa was courageous at a level most other nations would not be willing to emulate," observed British General Peter Everson, comparing it to Maliki's guarded approach to reconciliation and amnesty. "That's what they need here." But to this moment, Baghdad's reconciliation plan remains too sketchy, too vague, and too short of political conviction to do the job.

In a quiet villa inside the International Zone, one of Maliki's senior advisors considered the possibility that Iraq might dissolve into three separate nations, one Shia, one Sunni, one Kurd. "I am one of those people who loves the map of Iraq drawn by Gertrude Bell," he said, referring to the country that emerged in the 1920s from the pen of His Majesty's colonial servant. "But we need to do a lot of mending, building bridges, reconciliation, and dialogue." It is up to Prime Minister Maliki and his colleagues to come up with an amnesty package sweet enough to lure the Sunnis from their insurgency, thereby isolating the largely foreign-born al Qaeda radicals from the battle. However, deciding which crimes to absolve will inevitably aggravate both old and new wounds -- not only of the Shia, but of the Americans as well. Granting amnesty to a former Baathist bureaucrat is one thing. Doing the same for a captured Baghdad death squad member is quite something else. And welcoming old Baathists back to government -- just as the Allies once quietly scotched their de-Nazification effort in order to make German government work again -- tests Maliki's still unproven ability to rise above his own hatred of the now defunct regime. Toward the end of my interview with General Casey, I asked him what his nightmare scenario for Iraq was. His answer: "My nightmare scenario involves the Iraqi leadership. That the leadership won't make the compromises it will take to move the country forward, that they won't make the broad decisions that are good for the country as a whole, that they won't be able to overcome their sectarian bias."

End state

Though maliki's young government may be guilty of withholding the olive branch, many Iraqis say the U.S. and its Coalition partners could not have done more to bring about the sectarian division of Iraq had they issued a fatwa proclaiming it. Since the day its forces arrived in Baghdad, they maintain, the U.S. has dealt with the country as a series of ethnic groups while concurrently and paradoxically clinging to the stated objective of one, not three, Iraqs. "There are many problems in Iraq now, but no solution because the building of the government was wrong," charged one Iraqi journalist, his voice rising passionately. As with the many other Iraqis I interviewed, he insisted on anonymity in fear for his life. "The U.S. command was so focused on divisions, on percentages, and this is the wrong way. There is supposed to be one Iraqi people! It doesn't matter if they are Shiites or Sunnis." Now what has repeatedly been reported as a bloody but simple escalation in sectarian violence in and around Baghdad may instead be part of a battle for territorial control between Shias and Sunnis that is bound to end with the formal carving up of the country into three ethnically defined areas. "At the end of the day," said an intelligence officer, "the Sunnis aren't convinced they're losing, the Shia aren't convinced they should share, and the Kurds aren't convinced the other two will ever figure it out."

In a federal arrangement, Basra, Ramadi, and either Irbil or Kirkuk would serve as capitals for the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish federations respectively; Baghdad would become the largely ceremonial capital of a weak state with some say in foreign policy, trade, and economic policy but not much else. The "ethnic cleansing" needed to support this arrangement has been occurring during the civil strife of the past several months, though some note the vast potential for additional violence as sectarian groups in mixed provinces, as well as cities like Mosul and Baghdad, continue to sort themselves out. Also at issue: The Sunni provinces, lacking in oil, would be at the mercy of groups with whom they were recently in deadly combat. But the constitution now provides that oil and gas revenues from "current fields" are to be divided for the equal benefit of all Iraqis. This could be preserved when the document goes through its planned revision, with revenues from future exploration a subject for further political negotiation.

The September compromise -- delaying for two years consideration of the sciri effort to create a federation of the nine Shia-dominated southern provinces -- presented a misleading indicator of the direction of events. The Kurds already have their autonomy certified in a constitution that cannot be amended without their concurrence and reinforced both by two peshmerga divisions ready to defend it and a close relationship with the U.S. military going back to the "no-fly zones" of the early 90s. When I asked him to comment on the Kurdistan question, Colonel Gray spoke emphatically: "Self-determination is their ultimate goal. Independence. Have no doubt."

So while the Sunni and Shia battle it out in Baghdad, the Kurds have been moving steadily to shore up the deal, strengthening their political and economic independence through programs designed to attract foreign investment and rehabilitate dilapidated infrastructure. A new set of laws offering foreign investors the same rights as Iraqi investors -- including full project ownership -- is already on the books, as well as a host of tax and import incentives. In June new oil reserves were discovered by the Norwegian oil explorer dno.

Kurdish autonomy would suffer no serious challenge were it not for the demands of the Kurds to make the city of Kirkuk (pop. 850,000) their capital and the oil-rich surrounding territory (pop. 1.5 million) part of their governance. Both areas are home to large Arab and Turkoman populations, but the Kurds claim annexing the area is a move needed to correct historical wrongs. Beginning with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, a succession of Baghdad regimes imposed a policy of "Arabization" on the region, expelling and sometimes murdering tens of thousands of Kurds to make room for Arabs -- most of them Shias -- the majority recruited for menial jobs in the oil industry. Among the more fervent practitioners of Arabization was Saddam Hussein, who continued the practice into the 1990s. Following his removal in 2003, the Kurds began demanding a process of "normalization," with exiled Kurds and their descendants invited to return to Kirkuk and Arab families "encouraged" to go back to their former homes. The Turkomans have largely been spectators to the plan, which became enshrined in Article 58 of the new constitution owing to the Kurds' strategic political position between Sunnis and Shias. The failure of Iraq's first prime minister, Ibrihim al Jaafari, to implement Article 58 led to the loss of Kurdish support and his eventual downfall. Prime Minister Maliki has shown no greater enthusiasm for the provision.

Article 140 of the same constitution commits authorities to a census -- presumably but not explicitly of the Kirkuk area -- followed by a referendum on the future of Kirkuk, both to occur in 2007. U.S. intelligence reports that the Kurds, anticipating a vote limited to the Kirkuk region, have been listing all new babies as born in Kirkuk -- even those born elsewhere in the krg area. One might consider the tactic a variation of the old "tombstone voters" generated by the urban political machines in the U.S. once upon a time. Some suspect the government will seek to sway the Kirkuk vote in the opposite direction by inviting all Iraqis to take part in the referendum. At that point, all bets are off. "The Kurds will do everything in their power -- using the process -- to get Kirkuk without resorting to arms, but do not think they won't resort to arms," warned Colonel Gray. "The public sentiment is that Kirkuk is something worth fighting for."

A patrol with U.S. military and the Iraqi national police -- overwhelmingly Kurdish here -- produced a snapshot of the current state of affairs: In Kurdish neighborhoods, the population seemed friendly. People poured from their homes and lined the streets to wave at the passing soldiers, images one recalled from throughout the country during the heady early days following "shock and awe." Every few blocks, the Iraqi national police would dismount from their Humvees and talk to people on the streets, acquiring intelligence regarding recent insurgent activity, dispensing instructions on how to contact Iraqi troops quickly. Back in Arab areas, however, the crowds were more sparse, less forthcoming. Few fingers were spread into vs for "Victory." Neighborhood streets were unpaved, the dirt made soft by heavy treads with ridges dug by the occasional tracked vehicle. Here an ied would be terribly hard to spot. "Have you ever been hit?" I asked our driver. The answer: "About ten times. But unless they hit you right under the carriage the armor works." The worst damage he suffered in those ten hits was a shattered windshield. And what did he do when that happened? "I drove back to the base, swapped vehicles and rejoined the patrol," he replied, reinforcing my appreciation for the valor and commitment of the U.S. forces in country.

Later we took an unhurried flight aboard a Blackhawk helicopter over the area's oil, gas, and electricity facilities. Forty percent of Iraq's oil and seventy percent of its natural gas comes from the area around Kirkuk. Though the debilitating combination of sabotage and neglect has handicapped production, there are plans to bring new sources of oil and gas on-stream via a pipeline north to Turkey. But the Iraqi terminus, Baiji, is in Sunni-controlled country. Like so much else in this country, the plan depends upon a political accommodation not yet in evidence.

Those, like Colonel Gray, who know the Kurds well say their gratitude for the no-fly zone and the removal of Saddam is sincere. In jest, some residents suggest Kurdistan as the next American state. Less comically they say, "Put a base here," a move some U.S. observers believe would give them stability and influence in the region but which others warn would involve the U.S. in the area's interminable strife. To date, Washington has made little effort in Kurdistan, assigning no one from the State Department to deal specifically with the krg and passing off leadership of the Regional Reconstruction Team to the South Koreans. Some observers worry the U.S. is missing a vital opportunity to cement an important strategic relationship. "Our current strategic objective, however, is one, not three, Iraqs," said Gray. "But this should be a debate in the U.S."

In discussions on the subject, one finds concern about Turkish reaction to an independent Kurdistan expressed principally by those briefed in Washington or Western Europe. Those with more direct experience in Kurdistan itself say the Irbil government, acutely aware of Turkish sensibilities, has gone out of its way to reassure Ankara that Kurdish guerillas will receive no help here and that Irbil's attitude will be one of consultation and good neighborliness with the Turks. Visitors report that both Turkish and Iranian businesses are investing heavily in the krg area, while others predict that Turkey's pursuit of eu membership will serve as a moderating mechanism with respect to Ankara's words and deeds.

How realistic is the Kurdish plan for an autonomy so complete it would be but a short step to full independence? The senior advisor to Prime Minister Maliki predicted that Kurdistan would achieve independence and become the major U.S. air base and listening post in the region within ten years. One the other hand, a July 2006 International Crisis Group report offered this assessment: "All indications are that the Kurds cannot take Kirkuk by law or by force, without triggering wide-scale violence; likewise there is compelling reason to believe that they could not subsequently retain it without facing endemic instability and perennial challenges to their rule."

On the walls of military offices across Iraq, a poster printed in bold black letters reminds those deployed what the job should look like when they're finished: "End State: An Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors, that has a representative government that respects the human rights of all Iraqis, that is an ally in the war on terror, that has a security force that can maintain domestic order and can deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists." A loose affiliation of federal states is not without hazard. Just prior to his return to England, General Peter Everson warned that a functional division of the country could invite foreign predators to take matters into their own hands: "At that point there is potential for Turkey to shift the border, potential for Iran to exert influence in the South, and potential for Anbar to fall under Imam control." But with the country in crisis and the population fractionalized, a solution substantially mirroring the situation on the ground cannot be ruled out.

The cost of defeat

Great powers define history, marginal powers accommodate history, and it is not always easy to tell the difference. Richard Nixon, for example, began defining his history of the Vietnam war by committing this country to withdrawing from Vietnam through a process he called "Vietnamization." The U.S. would train and equip its South Vietnamese ally. The pace of the U.S. withdrawal would be determined in part by its ally's developing military capabilities. One might say as South Vietnam stood up, the U.S. could stand down. Of course, Vietnamization was never much more than a disguised defeat. Several things happened to nail the coffin shut and to make sure it stayed shut. One was the continued bargaining in Paris which resulted in a deal whereby Hanoi's forces in the South could remain "in place," with the North able to replace these forces on a one-for-one basis. Saigon could look forward to an enemy perpetually at its doorstep. One careless moment, one bad calculation, and all could be lost. Second, the return of all pows in exchange for the U.S. withdrawal deflated potential support for any U.S. return. After making the return of American pows a quid pro quo of withdrawal, neither Nixon nor any putative heir could stand another emotional cycle of loss and anguish in a war where "peace with honor" had already been declared. Third, Nixon, Watergate's "unindicted co-conspirator," resigned office one step ahead of impeachment by the House of Representatives, leaving the presidency in a weakened condition. Finally, a Congress that had turned bitterly against the war passed legislation -- over a veto by Nixon's successor, Gerald R. Ford -- forbidding the use of air power by the U.S. and effectively cutting off all military assistance to the South Vietnamese. It was as good as an engraved invitation to the North to attack.

Ironically, this first lost war in its history cost the U.S. very little on the world stage. By the late 1960s even early doubters had come to understand that the Sino-Soviet split was real and that the U.S. should be able to exploit that split to its own advantage. That meant détente with the Soviet Union and the normalization of relations with Beijing. The war being waged by the U.S. in Vietnam was, at the very least, an irritant to both Marxist powers, complicating both détente and normalization while containing as well a real if small risk of escalation. The loss in Vietnam might have emboldened the Soviets toward some unbecoming adventurism in places like Angola, Mozambique, and Afghanistan, but where it really counted -- the Middle East in 1973 and in strategic negotiations throughout -- the U.S. more than held its own while the Soviets moved toward loss of empire and, soon thereafter, collapse.

The prospect of similar alchemy transforming defeat in Iraq to U.S. advantage is remote. Defeat in Iraq means victory for some very nasty people: the political servants of Saddam Hussein, the totalitarians of the Baathist movement, the jihadists for whom the war represents, in the cia's words, a "cause celebre." Ironically, the failure of Iraq's Shia-dominated government to quash the Sunni uprising could also mean victory for the losing Shia patron, Iran. If a decent and humane peace is not found, the Shias will escalate their campaign of horrific terror against the Sunnis of Baghdad. The Sunnis will respond with more attacks by their own militias. They will turn to al Qaeda for more help from foreign "martyrs" and for up-to-date weapons of terrorism: ieds with powerful cone-shaped charges, explosively formed penetrators (esps), and Passive Infrared devices (pirs), which employ sensors to trip detonators and which contractors, trying to get military supplies through to Iraqi bases, describe as the Number One reason such missions have become several times more hazardous that they were early in the insurgency. Complemented by other more ordinary weapons and lots of quiet help from Saudi Arabia and even Jordan, the battle-toughened Sunnis will carry the fight to the Shias.

Ultimately the Shias will find Baghdad too hard to defend. Rather than a political and cultural center, it will achieve perpetual status as an ethnic no-man's-land inhabited by the desperate, a monument to the frailty of the human soul, and the incomplete work of the militias and their death squads. While the Shias, with Iran's strong backing, solidify their hold in the oil-rich southern provinces with Basra their capital, the Sunnis will look north to the now independent state of Kurdistan, once again stoking up old ethnic conflicts, pitting Sunni against Kurd and picking up Shia and Turkoman allies from among the excluded in what could be a very bloody battle.

Meanwhile, what goes on in Iran? In North Korea? In Israel and Syria, now that the former's vulnerability to long-range attack has been established? And what happens in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other American cities? There is a difference between potential exposure to occasional terrorist attack and losing a war to terrorists. Absorb a blow and retaliate smartly as the U.S. did in Afghanistan after 9/11 and you command respect. Quit in the face of harassment by a ragtag insurgency and you will find yourself under even greater assault from those who treat international diversity as a clash of civilizations. In an area where not even dissenters dispute the presence of vital American interests, the U.S. cannot afford to lose.

There is also the matter of Iraqi civilians, now losing their lives in numbers that outpace Coalition forces by orders of magnitude. In a conversation with a group of Iraqi engineers, I conceded that the U.S. had made some mistakes and that pressure for a precipitous withdrawal was mounting. "Is it acceptable to make a mistake with 25 million people?" asked one man. We may redefine our vision of success, but we cannot consent to defeat.

A number of interdependent steps can be taken to increase the prospects for victory in Iraq:

Get the numbers right, once and for all. For reasons that have been well-documented in several books and articles, the U.S.-led Coalition never had enough soldiers on the ground to provide security, take on the insurgents, plug the leaky borders, and guard the country's greatest strategic assets -- its oil, gas, and electrical grid. With 160,000 Iraqi troops scheduled to be in place by year's end and fully trained by the end of 2007, the U.S. has a window of opportunity to attack its two foremost military challenges -- security for Baghdad and fighting insurgents in Anbar Province -- with adequate numbers, but only if it keeps constant or even raises its own force levels. The U.S. may also employ such members of the Iraqi National Police as seem up to the task. U.S. force draw-downs should be neither numbers- nor event-driven. Rather, they should be accord-driven. When a political settlement is reached, withdrawals will begin. Rotations should occur in nothing less ambitious than a numbers-neutral fashion.

Work with the Baghdad government to make the Sunnis an offer they can't refuse. This means sweetening the rewards for ending their insurgency while stiffening the military consequences of continued rejectionism. The Sunnis should be provided with a window within which to declare an end to their rebellion and their acceptance of the Iraqi Constitution, and to publicly disown alliance with al Qaeda or other foreign infiltrators. In exchange, the government should issue a blanket amnesty to all except former top Saddam aides already in custody and other individuals already imprisoned and charged with or convicted of multiple murders, war crimes or crimes against humanity, or such crimes as rape or assault not connected to the current conflict. The amnesty will cover the right to return to former jobs and military positions or their equivalent.

While awaiting a Sunni reply and so long as good-faith negotiations continue, an enforceable cease-fire by militias should be observed. Upon the Sunni declaration ending the insurgency, all militias should be disbanded with the exception of those already serving in the Iraqi National Forces or those accepted for such service. Coalition forces should have primary responsibility for enforcing this arrangement and for preventing a revival of activity by so-called death squads, whether or not associated with militia groups. Only such militia members already in custody and charged with the most serious offenses should face trial and punishment.

The predominantly Sunni provinces should be entitled to benefit from oil and gas revenues from current fields on a pro-rata basis. New sources would be under control of the province in which they are discovered, provided that the percentage of annual oil revenues shared with the Sunnis will not diminish for at least 15 years.

Should the Shia-dominated government fail to come forward with this or a similar reconciliation plan, the U.S. should put it forward as an American proposal. Should the Sunnis accept the plan, the U.S. should engage other Sunni friends in the region -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt for starters -- to begin work on a regional stabilization and economic development plan designed to provide both Iraq's Sunnis and residents of the Kurdish Regional Government the economic and political underpinnings for self-rule.

Should the Sunnis fail to accept a bona fide offer along the above lines, the U.S. and Iraqi Armies should take advantage of their numerical build-up to launch a major offensive in Anbar Province designed to achieve military victory.

Do nothing beyond the above to facilitate or inhibit the constitutional evolution of Iraq toward a strong central government or a loosely aligned federal one. Be prepared to capitalize on either eventuality. Those who have observed the country's Sunnis carefully say that for several reasons they seek a strong central government. For one thing, they have thrived under such governments, a minority dominating the more numerous Shias under kings, pan-Arabists, and a Stalinist-style dictator. Many still cherish the vision of Egypt's Nasser -- a modern Arab state boldly seizing the future from the mosques, the democrats, the Zionists. Further, despite the Shias' numerical dominance in Iraq, the Sunnis don't perceive themselves as a minority, given the fact that world-wide there are nine Sunnis for every Shia. They regard the American interregnum as a blip on history. Give them a foothold in the army and another in government and they will be back in power in a historical instant. If this assessment is substantially correct, and I believe it is, one must question whether the U.S. is serving its own interests by working to facilitate a strong central government. If the Sunnis are correct, the U.S. will witness the rather prompt ascendancy of a group that spent at least the first three years after the arrival of U.S. forces killing as many of them as possible.

If the Sunnis fail in their bid to regain primacy in Iraq, it will almost certainly be because the Shias, armed, trained, funded, and inspired by their Iranian coreligionists, stopped them. In U.S. planning, things were supposed to work out differently. The Shias were first and foremost Iraqi patriots. They had shown that during the 1980s' slug-fest with Iran. Further, they yearned for democracy. Iran's quasi-theocracy held no allure for them. At heart, Iraq was secular. But the U.S. construction omitted the years following the 1991 Gulf War when a U.S. president urged Iraqis to rise up against the dictator Saddam and then stood by as his Republican Guard troops employed helicopter assaults to decimate the Shiites. Up to 300,000 perished. Hundreds of thousands of others found a welcome in Iran. Tens of thousands have now come back to Iraq, working everywhere from the local mosque or bazaar to the nearby police station or militia unit. The result is a Shia community with many more links to Tehran than U.S. planners had imagined. As Vali Nasr noted in an insightful article in the June/July 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, "As a result, the Iraqi nationalism that the U.S. Government hoped would serve as a bulwark against Iran has proved porous to Shiite identity in many ways." Nor has the yen for true democracy energized the Shia community. Again, in Nasr's words, "The Bush Administration thought of politics as the relationship between individuals and the state, and so it failed to recognize that people in the Middle East also see politics as the balance of power between communities."

So the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq are involved in a zero-sum game for high stakes. Whether played out on the battlefield or in the Chamber of Representatives, it may well be a game where the biggest winner is technically a nonplayer: Iran. Under no circumstances should the U.S. augment this victory by inviting the Iranians to participate formally in reconciliation efforts. Not only would that legitimize Iranian mischief in this already tragic conflict, but the obvious Iranian price -- informal carte blanche for its nuclear enrichment program -- would cause more long-run grief than even a bad outcome in Iraq.

The Kurds, of course, have an active plan to achieve first autonomy and then independence. They do not, however, have a plan to dominate Iraq or to walk boldly in the region. They have an enormous physical infrastructure to rebuild and oil profits to reap. As regards the latter, they have already begun to find more oil and bring it to market. They believe a U.S. base would provide the perfect security umbrella for their needs. It may not yet be the time to embrace the idea, but it would be gratuitous to reject it. The name of the game is now flexibility, keeping viable options alive in a situation that is otherwise highly damaging. Should a gust of reason now prevail in the conflict, the U.S. will have done much to bring it about and should retain its position in the area. And if the country should split apart, a relationship with the Kurds beckons, not an easy one to maintain to be sure, but one which retains an important U.S. presence in a part of the world where America's interests are indeed vital.


The author expresses deep gratitude to his daughter, Marni R. Zelnick, who accompanied him to Iraq and provided invaluable research and editorial assistance.


Robert Zelnick is Chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has been with Boston University since September, 1998. Mr. Zelnick's courses at Boston University have included Covering International Terrorism, Covering National Security, Foreign Reporting, Media Law and Ethics, and The Presidency and the Media.

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