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After Three Years of War, Concerns Abound

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: March 10, 2006


The professionalism of Iraq’s security forces has emerged as a chief concern as reports continue of abuses, lapses, and spiraling violence between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni populations. The United States says it will expand its training of Iraqi police and security forces (LAT), amid reports of the kidnapping of some fifty security guards by gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniforms. Despite all the setbacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking before Congress, said Iraq's security forces, not U.S. troops, would be able to handle an outbreak of civil war, should one occur (NYT).

The presence of sectarian militiamen in Iraq’s security forces, many of them Shiite, has destabilized the country, resulting in reprisal attacks, kidnappings, and prisoner abuses. That is the assessment of the State Department’s newly released human rights report on Iraq. The report admits that "since criminals, insurgents, and paramilitaries often wore police uniforms, data on actual police abuses was uncertain." Many analysts, including Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack, say militias are even more destabilizing than the insurgency. Matthew Sherman, a former Interior Ministry adviser, in an interview with estimates the number of commandos within Iraq’s security forces with militia ties has jumped from roughly 6,000 to around 10,000 over the past year. Meanwhile, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle suggests decellerating the training of Iraqi troops and police units until a constitutional deal agreeable to all of Iraq’s ethnic groups is struck.

With the war approaching its three-year mark, asked a number of experts, journalists, and military specialists: Is the United States winning or losing the war in Iraq? The general consensus is the U.S. military is losing, but the war is not lost. A new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments examines how reconstruction failures have undermined the war effort, while the Center for Strategic and International Studies and International Crisis Group in recent reports examine the main players within the insurgency.

Against this backdrop of growing violence, Iraq’s political leaders are still trying to put together a national-unity government, explained in this CFR Background Q&A. But Sunnis have voiced strong opposition to the choice of Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister because of his alleged ties to Shiite militias. Finding some form of détente between the Shiite and Sunni communities will be paramount to avoiding all-out civil war and achieving political progress in Iraq, experts say. P. Walter Lang, former head of Middle East Policy and Counterterrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency, told that the recent spike in sectarian violence following the attack of a major Shiite shrine should not derail the political process.

A number of Arabists, including CFR Adjunct Senior Fellows Noah Feldman and Vali Nasr, assess in TIME the ongoing power struggles between these two groups. Contrary to media reports, Feldman says, "for the overwhelming majority of Iraqi history, Sunnis and Shiites have lived peacefully side by side." To be sure, it is not just Shiites and Sunnis vying for power in Iraq’s future government; Kurds and Christians will also play important roles, as these two CFR Background Q&As explain.

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