I was at an impromptu dinner party here in Abu Dhabi last night and one of the guests, the mother of a former Spanish diplomat asked me what I thought would happen in Iraq. The other guests around the table grimaced; Iraq is a well-worn and tiresome topic here in the Gulf emirate and many have made up their minds already as what is going to happen.
But despite White House statements that every year is a make-or-break year for that poor country, I really do believe 2008 will be a crucial one for Iraq.
Iraq and the United States face huge challenges this year. But the gains made under the current surge strategy aren’t the only measure of what’s going on in Iraq; it remains a series of delicately balanced accords. If one worsens it can be managed, but more than that and the U.S. would again be overwhelmed. Everything has to go just right for Bush to hand a stable and relatively peaceful Iraq off to his successor.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the issues that will confront George W. Bush in his last year in office — and what lies in store for the next president
The Surge: The surge is coming to an end this summer, like it or not. Five combat brigades — about 30,000 troops — will leave Iraq by the end of July because their deployments are up and there aren’t any more reserves ready to go. There’s just no getting around it. The big question is then: Will there be an increase in general violence once the U.S. presence is back down to around 140,000 troops, about the same number who were in-country during the worst of the 2004-2006 violence?
Some say it’s not the numbers of troops, but the mission, and the U.S. has been far more aggressive getting troops into neighborhoods and protecting Iraqi civilians. That’s led to more intelligence tips and a routing of al Qaeda in Iraq to the northern part of the country.
But the competency of the Iraqi security forces, while improving, is still in doubt. With fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the Iraqis will have to pick up the slack. The White House says it intends to continue withdrawing troops after a brief pause to assess the situation. Which means there are likely to be even fewer troops if things go pear-shaped in the fall.
Sunni Awakening: The Surge was successful because of the so-called Sunni Awakening, which started in fall 2006, before the U.S. increased its presence. Sunni tribes in Anbar – the large Western part of the country – realized they would lose any civil war against the Shi’ites and signed on with the U.S.. In return, they got money and weapons if they turned on the foreign jihadists in their midst. It was a good plan and it’s a big reason for the drop in violence. But it’s starting to fray at the edges.
Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala, to the east, are growing frustrated with the Americans and the Iraqi government and have upped their demands. Diyala Awakening militias have basically gone on strike because the Americans aren’t pressuring Baghdad enough to hire all of the Sunnis back into the Iraqi Army and police forces.
“Now, there is no cooperation with the Americans,” said Haider Mustafa al-Kaisy, an militia commander in Baqoubah, the seat of Diyala’s government. “We have stopped fighting al-Qaeda.”
This isn’t a large-scale movement yet but it could become one as the summer rolls on and the Iraqi government continues to blackball Awakening members for jobs in the security services. With a combination of lower troop levels, lack of competent security forces and 80,000 angry Sunnis, Iraq could be looking at the bad days of 2004-2006 again.
Shi’ite Divisions: First, the good news: Nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced he would extend his Mahdi Army’s six-month ceasefire another six months. Along with the surge and the Awakening movement, al-Sadr’s decision to have his men stand down has led to a huge drop in violence.
But his followers, like the Sunnis, are growing frustrated. When he announced the extension last week, many of his followers were upset.
“This is a huge shock,” said Bassim Zain, a militiamen from Diwaniyah. “We were expecting that Sayyid Moqtada will end the freeze in order to defend ourselves.”
Who are they defending themselves against? Mainly another Shi’ite faction: the armed wing of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which controls many of the police forces across the south and have used its positions to torture and kill their political enemies: the Sadrists.
And just last week, a law heralded by the United States as a step toward political reconciliation was vetoed by the SIIC. The SIIC, the Shi’a political party, favors giving more power to the provinces. The Sadrists favor a more centralized government.
But it’s really about postponing provincial elections. The SIIC currently controls many of the oil-rich south’s local governments, but is widely expected to lose in new elections slated for this fall. By vetoing the bill, they tie the election process up in knots and delay an expected drubbing. And they get the levers of the state to continue their fight against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. But how long will al-Sadr keep his men from fighting?
The Turks: Finally, there’s the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, which Ankara ended after eight days. The Kurds are furious with the U.S. for giving Turkey the green light to operate in their territory. The Turks are furious at the Kurds and the U.S. for not cracking down more effectively on the Kurdish nationalist group, PKK, which Washington and Ankara consider a terrorist organization.
Neither of these dynamics have changed, and the Turks hardly finished off the PKK in eight days. That means the Turks will likely be back this year, and they’ll eventually run up against the Iraqi Kurds’ pesh mergas. And then you’ll have a real war, with the U.S. right in the middle of it.
Hang on, it’s going to be a very bumpy summer.