The sobering truth about Iraq

John F. Burns of the New York Times was a guest on the Charlie Rose show just after he returned from Iraq. He’s been in Iraq for a few years. What he says about the current situation in Iraq is sobering. It illustrates why the situation has been described as dire and deteriorating, and puts a damper on any optimism people might have about our involvement ending anytime soon, or any assurance of some kind of victory. As with any tough fight, victory is never assured.

Nevertheless he says some interesting things. I encourage you to watch the whole program. It’s enlightening, but I’ll highlight some points here.

  1. The Iraqi people are still glad we got rid of Saddam. He indicated that Iraqi emotions about this are complex. He said that if you were to approach many Iraqis and ask them about this they’d probably complain about the U.S. presence, but if you sit down and talk with them for a while, they’ll all say it’s better with Saddam gone, and they’re thankful we got rid of him. Even the Sunnis say this. Most Sunnis didn’t gain much from Saddam’s reign.
  2. Charlie Rose asked Burns about different Democratic strategies that have been suggested, such as partitioning the country, or a gradual pullout. Burns strongly recommended against both of those options. He said partitioning the country along sectarian lines would be impossible. He said there is a lot of intermarriage, and Baghdad is “like an omelet” in ethnic terms. It sounded like partitioning could not take place without violating the Iraqis’ human rights. He also recommended against the U.S. pulling out, since it would destabilize the region, and cause Sunni governments in the region to side with militant islamists in Iraq.
  3. The Sunni insurgency is led by Ba’athists, more specifically the former Vice President of Iraq, Ibrahim al Duri–who we still have not found, with some cooperation from al Qaeda. He described the Ba’athist leader as an evil man. He said what al Duri hopes to do is get the U.S. to leave Iraq, and with the support of surrounding Sunni-led governments re-establish the Ba’athist regime, with himself as president, basically restoring the status quo ante. It’s really ironic that we managed to find Saddam Hussein, but we haven’t found this guy.
  4. The UK, our main ally in Iraq, has been part of the problem, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear the U.S. government say this. The forces of the UK have managed the southern part of Iraq. The U.S. wanted to confront and disarm al Sadr’s Mehdi militia, but since al Sadr is Shia, and the Shia reside in the south of Iraq, it was up to the UK to handle al Sadr. The UK has held this belief that since they are the “elder country”, having been “around the block” more than the U.S. has, they felt they knew best how to handle the situation. Drawing from their past impirial experience they felt it was best to allow the Shia militias to stay as they were. Burns said the overriding belief was, “You take the country as it is.” This probably sounded like a fair idea at the time, but more recently it’s caused problems because of Iran’s influence. Iran has been prodding, training, and supplying the Shia militias, and these militias have been attacking U.S. forces, in addition to carrying out reprisal attacks on Sunnis.

Burns offered no solutions of his own on how to win the war, except to say, “Maybe the big mistake was going in the first place.” I wouldn’t expect much more from a journalist. His job is just to report what’s going on, not to find solutions, and I don’t blame him for that.

I saw an episode of Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, with Michael Ware this week. Ware has been a CNN correspondent in Iraq for a few years. The feel of Ware’s report was different from Burns’s. It sounded like he had spent a lot of time embedded with the Sunni insurgents. The gist of what he said was that the U.S. doesn’t understand Iraq at all, and it’s operating under an illusion of what’s possible. He spoke with admiration about how Iran and al Qaeda have been able to influence events in the country. I suspect he admires them because he gets the sense that these groups understand how to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, whereas in his mind the U.S. doesn’t have a clue. He didn’t mention the Ba’athists at all, and made it sound like al Qaeda was in charge of the Sunni insurgency. This was a little confusing because he was not with al Qaeda. He was just embedded with “Sunni insurgents”. Being an informed viewer I noticed a few places in his story where he left critical facts out, which had the effect of making things sound worse than they were. Not to say that what he was saying was in any way inaccurate. I lost some respect for his reporting though. He committed errors of omission, in my opinion.

His assessment was valuable in explaining the current sectarian rift that is developing, where people are siding more and more with their local sectarian militias instead of the Iraqi government.

One thing he said that rang true was that in Iraq you don’t have political power unless you have a militia. I suspect the main reason for this is that the Iraqi military is not strong enough yet to take over the role of securing communities and the country as a whole.

On the issues of partitioning the country, or a gradual pullout, what Ware said agreed with Burns’s assessment: we can’t do either without a terrible disaster.

The conclusion of both is that we are stuck in Iraq for good or for ill. The least worst option is to stay there and fight it out.

The worst case scenario I see occuring is that the democratic government cannot get on its feet and the American government as a whole loses patience with it, moves towards pulling the plug, and we install a dictator that is friendly to us, forming a police state in Iraq. It would be bad for the Iraqis, but at least it would be good for us in the short term. It would be a sad outcome, because Iraqis would lose their newfound freedoms, but it would be better than the chaos that would ensue if we were to just leave it up to the insurgents, giving a great sanctuary for al Qaeda in Anbar Province, and an excuse to Iran to seize the southern oil fields in Iraq. The far left in this country would rather leave it to the insurgents than have us install a dictator. They didn’t like it when we were cozy with dictators in the past. I don’t expect them to be any different in this case.

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