What Is To Be Done in Iraq?

por Reuel Marc Gerecht, 3 de mayo de 2004

(Published in The Weekly Standard, From the May 3, 2004 issue: A plan for dealing with every faction. Volume 009, Issue 32)

So, what do we do in Iraq? It is obvious that the Bush administration and its distant and sometimes independent offshoot, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, have been knocked off balance by events. It's not the first time, of course. The Baghdad and Najaf bombings of August 2003 unnerved Washington. But the 'insurrection' of April 2004 appears to have completely disoriented the administration. Whether it is dealing with the Sunni Arabs, particularly those attacking and resisting U.S. forces in Falluja, or the Shiite militants behind the radical young cleric Moktada al-Sadr, or the anti-radical Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, or the United Nations and the Europeans, the administration certainly doesn't convey the impression that it has any plan left--except to (convincingly) promise perseverance and cross its fingers and hope that the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi can devise a new political roadmap for the transfer of sovereignty on June 30.
At this point, it is worthwhile to remember that the vast majority of Iraqis are still probably on 'our side,' that is, they sincerely want a peaceful and workable transition of sovereignty that leads to a functioning, democratic Iraq. Given all the violence, and the enormous political problems that lie ahead, it is easy to forget this datum. Among the Shiites, and the Kurds, and even the Sunnis, it is not hard to see the desire to make things work. Though the June 30 deadline has made both American and Iraqi pulses race, we still probably enjoy more margin of error than we think we do, because relatively few Iraqis--certainly very few senior clerics in Najaf, who are the most consequential political players in the country--want chaos or a return to dictatorship. It's not unlikely the Bush administration will in the end be forgiven its worst mistakes and the problems that would have occurred even if the CPA had played a better hand. The Sunni 'insurrection,' for example, was in all probability inevitable. Would that we'd rounded up sooner more men from Saddam's elite military units, the intelligence and security services, and the paramilitary storm troopers, but these folks were going to come for us in any case. Ditto the Sunni militants and foreign holy warriors who have no intention to allow a Shiite-led democracy to take shape. And if the CPA had adopted the anti-Shiite mentality present in the voluminous, much-touted, but seldom-read State Department guide to Iraqi reconstruction, things in Iraq could be far worse. Sometimes poor--or no--planning is better than stacks of consistently bad ideas.
But what do we do now? Let's divide Iraq up into its principal sects--Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, U.N. bureaucrats, Europeans, and Americans--and work through them.
The Sunnis. What is the CPA trying to accomplish in the siege of Falluja? It is at this point unclear. If it is trying to send a clear signal of American resolve to the ex-Baathists, Sunni fundamentalists (and Falluja has been a crucible for Wahhabism in Iraq), and foreign holy warriors, it is failing. Just a glance at the Arabic media gives the opposite impression: The brave denizens of the town have successfully defied the American occupiers. Falluja has become a rallying cry. Even Iraqis who hate the insurrectionists may start to flip on us because the Americans appear to be engaging in an endless military action. Iraqi nationalism is a real and fickle thing. Even Shiites who would be thrilled to see the American military maul the ex-Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists fortified in the town (better the Americans deal with them now than we have to later) could start to turn if the United States undertakes a protracted siege. The Shiites may distrust the satellite channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabia for their pro-Saddam bias through the years, but nonstop images and sounds of the Falluja siege with innocent civilians dying day after day will start to tweak Iraqi nationalist nerves. Soon we could be in that very unpleasant situation where even our most steadfast Shiite allies start to say nice things about Iraqis they detest. And we should not forget the effect that this has upon Sunni holy warriors. Bin Ladenism is primarily fed by the appearance of American indecision and weakness. Inside Iraq and out, the 'resistance' of Falluja is a godsend for holy warriors like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an al Qaeda acolyte who has been behind many of the suicide bombings.
The United States simply cannot afford to engage in siege tactics. Negotiations must lead to the immediate surrender of the town and all those within it--the surrender of the insurgents' weaponry is meaningless since weaponry in Iraq can be quickly reacquired. Any agreement where the insurgents abandon their heavy weaponry and withdraw from the town unmolested is even worse. This will only punt down the road a worse confrontation. This is exactly what we did with Moktada al-Sadr. In other words, the only real option is for the Marines to storm the place. We should have taken the town immediately after the four American contract-workers were desecrated; indeed, U.S. armed forces should have cleaned up Falluja months ago. If there is one town in Iraq that has merited classic counterinsurgency tactics, it is Falluja. No doubt, there could be unpleasant repercussions within Iraq and elsewhere from a direct assault--Lakhdar Brahimi has already concluded that 'collective punishment is certainly unacceptable and the siege of the city is absolutely unacceptable.' But we now have no choice. We cannot retreat and we cannot maintain a siege. Sooner, not later, we need to align the tough rhetoric of the CPA chief L. Paul Bremer with military actions on the ground. It's unlikely we can please Brahimi and successfully fight this war in the Sunni Triangle at the same time.
The Sunnis and politics. It is obvious and understandable that the CPA is desperately trying to engage the Arab Sunnis in a political process that will, in theory, diminish the violence within the Sunni Triangle. It is entirely likely that some military actions were poorly planned and executed, killing and harassing moderate Sunni Arabs who earlier wished us no harm. Clumsy, heavy-handed U.S. actions are perhaps inevitable given the type of combat forces deployed, the American proclivity toward force-protection, and the dubious sources of some American intelligence (think about the known Sunni bad eggs in the hastily rebuilt Iraqi security services and then think about the information given to the U.S. military and the CIA about 'hostile' Sunnis--it is quite possible that we have unknowingly on occasion done the bidding of ex-Baathists and Sunni militants). In an effort to make the Sunnis feel more loved, the Bush administration has decided to reverse partially Ambassador Bremer's decision to exclude the former Sunni military elite from a new Iraqi army. Brahimi, a Sunni Algerian Arab who rose to prominence under the rule of Algeria's generals, has already let it be known that he believes the Americans have engaged in too much de-Baathification. This view is also common within the State Department, the uniformed services at the Pentagon, and among Iraq experts in universities and think tanks. The administration ought to realize, however, it is playing with fire.
Does the Shiite community, and especially the Shiite clergy, realize that there are such things as 'good Sunni military officers'? Sure. Though not numerous, such men in the past spared Shiite lives and property. The Shiites are well aware of the collective hell that all Iraqis endured under Saddam Hussein. But there is a red line here. And it will be very hard to know when we've crossed it until it is too late. And once we've crossed, we can't step back. And let us repeat what has become obvious since the 'insurrection' of Moktada al-Sadr started: We lose the Shiites, we lose Iraq.
Let us be honest about how the Sunni community will view Sunni colonels and generals returning to an Iraqi army. Are they likely to say to themselves, 'See, we will have a place in a new democratic Iraq,' or to think they have a chance to recapture the instrument of political power, the ultimate check against a Shiite-led government? The Sunni will to power is the common denominator of modern Iraqi history--Shiites might argue that it is the common denominator of Islamic history. Travel Iraq and it is easy to find Sunnis who sincerely want to see their country democratic. Spend much time among the former military elite and you don't come away with the same sensation. Rather, you get the impression that they are furious at Saddam Hussein for going too far, for cocking up what had been a very good and sustainable situation.
It is possible, of course, that the democratic ethic can grow in such men. Ambassador Bremer has said that only ex-Baathist military officers with good records will be considered for reemployment. But what exactly does that mean? Officers who embraced the party--and your 'better' officers over the rank of major probably did enthusiastically--but did not personally shoot women and children or order the destruction of Shiite homes, are these soldiers of good standing? And how many Sunnis will we need to hire into the new army to make the Sunnis feel as if they've received their 'fair' share? Do we really think that whatever that share is will turn most of the Sunni rejectionists into democrats? If there is one thing the Provisional Authority may do in Iraq that most resembles Russian roulette, this is it. It would be very wise for the administration, if it insists on going through with this new 'Buy Sunni' approach to the Iraqi military, to clear senior Sunni Arab military appointments with a good sampling of Shiites--especially the senior clergy in Najaf.
The essential political step for the Sunnis, as for all Iraqis, is to move to national elections as quickly as possible so we and the Iraqis can see how many Arab Sunnis are willing to vest themselves in a new, Shiite-led democratic order. The Sunnis need to know that the train is leaving the station and that they cannot stop it. Profound cooperation is much more likely if they know as a community that their interests will be permanently short-changed if the Shiites, Kurds, and Americans must construct a new Iraq without substantial Sunni participation.
For the Shiites, a seven-point plan:
(1)   At all times treat Grand Ayatollah Sistani as the leader of the Shiite community. Even if Sistani isn't clearly in control--and Moktada al-Sadr is trying hard to challenge Iraq's preeminent divine--act as if he ought to be. The ayatollah is America's most essential ally in Iraq, regardless of whether the Americans and the Iraqis like to publicly admit it.
(2)   Realize we have more maneuvering room with the rebellion of Sadr than with the Sunnis in Falluja. This means, first and foremost, don't attack the holy city of Najaf. There are many reasons why the Iraqi Shiites today loathe the Saudis, but up there at the top is the memory of Wahhabi holy warriors besieging and sacking Shiite shrine cities in Iraq repeatedly throughout the 19th century. If we go into Najaf in force, we will lose Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is the guardian of the holy city. We lose him, we lose the country. There may conceivably be some wiggle room for a lightning-fast strike directly against Sadr, but it's most doubtful that American intelligence could ever supply the information needed to make this tactically possible. It's also most unlikely that the senior clergy of Najaf's clerical establishment, the Hawza, would countenance such a strike, though they detest Sadr. There is nothing wrong, however, with going after Sadr's men elsewhere in the country if they engage in any violent actions against Iraqis, Americans, or our allies. And if they attack, we should respond immediately with lethal force.
Ultimately, however, Sistani and the Hawza must handle Sadr. We cannot do this for them. In the past, Sistani could draw on significant armed forces from the tribes in the Shiite heartland around Najaf. He did so earlier to intimidate the followers of Moktada, the Sadriyyin. We must continue to hope that the senior clergy, who loathe the idea of internecine Shiite fighting, especially within Najaf, can find a means to neutralize Sadr as long as he remains in the shrine city. And if Sistani agrees to Sadr's being deported to Iran, then let the young holy warrior go. Even if Sadr has been receiving substantial Iranian encouragement and support--and it's likely that he has--it's unlikely that once in Iran he will be nearly as effective as he is in Iraq.
Though the clerical regime in Tehran unquestionably does not wish America well next door, and will try to sabotage the creation of a democratic order backed by moderate Iraqi clerics, its relationship with Najaf and the Iraqi Shia is complicated. Iranian pilgrims, including clerics, have flooded into Iraq's shrine cities--the Atabat, the gateways to Heaven--since the fall of Saddam Hussein. By now, Iran's ruling clerics have no illusions about the Hawza's antagonism to the Iranian model of a theocratic state and the distaste the Iraqi senior clergy has for Iran's 'spiritual' guide, Ali Khamenei, whose politically acquired title of 'ayatollah' (the sign of God) is not uttered felicitously by Iraq's more accomplished clerics. The regime in Tehran does not like to be seen as openly sponsoring a very young, not particularly well-educated cleric who is challenging the entire religious establishment of Najaf. Khamenei and Iran's number two, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are well aware of the clerical dissatisfaction within their own ranks. If they openly or clandestinely go too far in Iraq, Najaf could and probably would push back. This may yet happen. But Sadr in Iran could actually be for Khamenei and Rafsanjani vastly more trouble than he's worth. If they are so foolish as to want him, let them have him.
(3)   Have Bremer, or ideally the president, state clearly that America intends to help the United Nations advance the date of national elections as fast as possible. We should state loudly and clearly that we do not want United Nations participation in the political reconstruction of Iraq to delay elections for a constitutional assembly or a national assembly by a single day.
(4)   We should state loudly and often that we will oppose any U.N. plan that diminishes the democratic throw-weight of the Shiite majority in Iraq. We believe that all Iraqis ought to have constitutional protections guaranteeing their individual rights, but the United States is not in favor of Lebanonizing Iraq into religious and ethnic cantons. This means that on most matters--except those specifically enumerated in a new constitution--the Shiites, if they vote as a bloc, will legislatively carry the day.
(5)   If Brahimi and Sistani disagree on any issue pertaining to the representation of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in a transitional government, side with Sistani. If individuals in the State Department, CPA, or Congress (thinking here of Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar) have a problem with this, then CD-ROMs full of Sadriyyin chest-thumping chants should be sent to these protesters. To add extra clarity, labels could be put on the CDs saying, 'We lose Sistani, we lose Iraq.'
(6)   The Transitional Administrative Law is probably as dead as a door-nail. Don't waste time defending it. We should encourage the Shiites and Kurds to sit down and work out a different arrangement to protect Kurdish rights other than through a constitutional veto that effectively checks a Shiite majority on virtually any legislative matter. Encourage the Kurds and Shiites to work out, perhaps through a bicameral legislature, a checks-and-balances arrangement that makes it very difficult for a majority to run roughshod over Kurdish concerns.
(7)   Senior U.S. officials and congressmen should repeat to themselves each night before bedtime: 'The Islamic Republic of Iran intends to screw us in Iraq.' Do not fall victim to the 'realist' delusion that some kind of grand bargain is possible with Iran. A clerically supported democracy in Iraq is poisonous for Iran's theocracy. Intra-Shiite squabbles do matter, and this one--the battle between a one-man, one-vote democracy and Iran's theocratic 'rule of the jurisconsult' (velayat-e faqih)--is enormous. Dealing with Iran in Iraq is going to be a very tricky, long-term affair. Most of the heavy lifting will, fortunately, be done by the religious establishment in Najaf. But we shouldn't complicate their lives or ours by seeking, openly or clandestinely, any bilateral U.S.-Iranian discussion on Iraq that allows Iran an official role in Iraq's reconstruction. If Brahimi starts to move in this direction, stop him.
The Kurds. The most overwhelming issue is fairly straightforward: Do the Kurds want to live in a democratic Iraq where they will not be able to veto legislation nearly as often as they might like? We should tell the Kurds that we will not support them against the Shiite objection to their comprehensive constitutional veto power in the Transitional Administrative Law. It's much better for us and all Iraqis if the Kurds and the Shiites have it out now on this issue, not later. Our position in Iraq is only going to get weaker with time--perhaps much weaker very quickly--and the Kurds would be far better off to have this argument with the rest of Iraq while we are in a position to influence events.
The United Nations and the Europeans. It is possible that Lakhdar Brahimi will ride to the rescue of the Bush administration before June 30. His and his office's commentary about excessive American-led de-Baathification and his preference for 'technocrats' over would-be politicians in a transitional government probably do not help his case among the Shiites and Kurds, who see such language as pro-Sunni Arab. (Sunni Arabs made up the vast bulk of senior-level technocrats under Saddam Hussein's rule.) Brahimi's own silence as a senior official in the Arab League and as Algeria's foreign minister about Saddam's slaughter of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds after the great rebellion of '91 also probably does not endear him to most Shiites and Kurds. If Brahimi did speak out against this atrocity at the time, it would be most helpful for him to remind others of when and where he remonstrated against Saddam's actions.
Brahimi has, however, two factors working in his favor: the surreal but now unavoidable June 30 deadline and the 'uprising' of Moktada al-Sadr, who has spooked the traditional Shiite establishment in Najaf. Both these factors might cause Grand Ayatollah Sistani to be less democratically inclined for the sake of short-term stability. Then again, Sistani might not want to compromise at all on Shiite representation in a transitional government and interim constitution if he feels too threatened by Sadr. The Bush administration and the Coalition Provisional Authority are both concerned about Brahimi's 'Sunni' factor. Many within the government certainly know, even if Senator Biden does not, that the Iraqi Shia have viewed the United Nations primarily as a tool to use against the United States to expedite the elections process. If the United Nations ends up offering the Shiites no more, perhaps less, than what Ambassador Bremer was offering, we shouldn't be surprised if the U.N.'s 'international legitimacy' and utility in Iraq evaporate overnight. We should obviously support Brahimi's efforts, but we should do so only as long as he does not run afoul of the majority of Shiites. If he does that, we need to be prepared to seize the initiative back, call for national, constituent elections within six months, and directly ask Sistani--privately at first, publicly if necessary--to whom we should transfer sovereignty on June 30. We should not hesitate to pass the responsibility for this to the Grand Ayatollah. (And we will see if he takes it.)
And concerning the Europeans, don't expect more of them to embrace our democratic cause in Iraq, even with a U.N. resolution. If Iraq were really a serious strategic issue for France and Germany--more serious than internal European Union politics and the humbling of the United States internationally--they would be behind us already. Though the transatlantic foreign-policy establishment in Washington is loath to see or admit the truth, France and Germany have more to gain in Europe--and therefore, in their eyes, in the world--if America is laid low in Iraq. Tactically, philosophically, and spiritually (anti-American schadenfreude is a legitimate and serious foreign-policy objective in both these countries), the French and the Germans--the heart of Senator John Kerry's international order--have much more to win by watching the Bush administration electorally defeated in Mesopotamia. Nonetheless, if Colin Powell would finally like to travel throughout Europe making the case for increased European commitment to the Anglo-American effort in Iraq, he should be encouraged to do so.
The Americans. Beyond what has been said above, only two things. Send more troops, and repeat several times each day: 'If we lose the Shia, we lose Iraq.'

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.