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Biddle: Security, Political Improvements Seen in Iraq in Recent Months

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 15, 2007

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Stephen Biddle, CFR’s top defense analyst, is just back from his second trip to Iraq this year. He cites positive developments on several fronts. The Anbar experiment, in which local Sunni forces joined up with the U.S. military against al-Qaeda in Iraq, “has taken off outside Anbar province,” he says. Moreover, the new perception that U.S. forces are not about to leave Iraq in large numbers, Biddle says, has allowed the Shiite-led government to “dip its toes” into reconciliation with Sunnis. This involves distributing oil to Sunni areas and hiring former Baathists in security forces.

You’ve just come back from your second trip to Iraq this year. What’s your sense of the situation now? Is it different from your last trip in the spring?

Yes, quite a bit, actually.

My view for a long time had been that Iraq is already in a civil war, and therefore the only way to succeed is to apply the standard civil war termination playbook. There are two basic pieces to that: You negotiate a power-sharing deal that yields a cease-fire, and then you bring in outside peacekeepers to stabilize it.

I had figured that in the particular conditions of Iraq, neither was impossible, but each was unlikely. Maybe a one-in-three shot for either one of them individually, yielding something like a one-in-ten shot for success overall. I think events since the spring have been quite extraordinary, and I think what’s happened is that essentially we’ve hit the one-in-three shot on the first of these two, or very close to it, and that’s something like a cease-fire. What some people call the “Anbar model,” or this process of local cease-fire accommodations between former-combatants and some combination of ourselves and the government of Iraq, really has taken off outside Anbar province in ways that I find quite fascinating and quite surprising. The Sunni insurgency, with a few exceptions, has largely left the field, and is now providing local security under negotiated arrangements with us. Moreover, a significant number of Shiite combatant groups are also in active negotiation and a significant number of them have left the fighting field.

Are they working with us?

Yes. The catch phrase that people in the country use to describe these things are “CLCs,” or “Concerned Local Citizens” groups, which I think is a horrible misnomer.

Do we arm them?

Many of these people are the former combatants we’d been fighting against a few months ago, so they’re pretty well enough armed. What we’ve been doing is providing them uniforms, some degree of training, and, in particular, we’re paying their salaries. And we’re enforcing the agreements they’ve reached. These outfits have reached formal agreements with us that they will not fire against us or the government, and instead they will defend their neighbors against common enemies, typically al-Qaeda in Iraq, but increasingly the Jaish al Mahdi [the Shiite militia force loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr].

There are now something on the order of 70,000 CLCs country-wide, which has gone from essentially zero to something like 70 percent the size of the British army in a matter of about six months. I just find that quite extraordinary and, again, very surprising. I hadn’t anticipated anything like this kind of speed and success level in replicating this model outside Anbar.

I think the press has missed this big story in an important way. If you look over press coverage in the last few weeks or months you can find some good descriptions of this. But the way they tend to describe this phenomenon is: “We’ve got all these improvements or apparently changing tides, but here are all the various ways it could go wrong….”

Well what do you attribute this whole change on the ground to? Is this due to what is called “the surge,” or good diplomacy by the U.S. military, or just luck?

All of those things have some role but I would put “luck” as probably the biggest.

You mean the timing just happens to coincide with the Sunnis getting fed up with al-Qaeda?

Well, that’s a big part of it. I think there are about three or four major reasons for this. One of the principal factors is that the Sunnis lost the battle of Baghdad and understand that they lost it. Interestingly, most people look back at the Samara mosque bombing back in February 2006 and the subsequent sectarian violence as a great disaster. But one of the ironic features of that is that sectarian violence essentially resulted in the Sunnis getting kicked out of the capital city. They lost the fighting with the Jaish al Mahdi in the city of Baghdad and came to recognize that they were not going to win if this came to an all-out war with the United States gone from Iraq.

As a result, Sunnis have come to realize that if this violence goes all out, they lose, they don’t win. A second major factor is the way in which al-Qaeda in Iraq has screwed up—it’s nice to know we’re not the only people who screw things up in Iraq.

AQI brutalized its own prospective allies, especially Sunni tribes in Anbar, but also elsewhere in Iraq. In the course of all that, they made themselves look like a bigger threat to the Sunni population in Iraq than us, or even than the Shiite government.

A third major factor is an apparent change in Iraqis’ perception of how long we’re going to be there. I’ve heard a number of people in Iraq suggest that, partially as a result of General [David] Petraeus’ testimony before congressional committees last September, but also as a result of the changing tenor of the discussion in the United States, many Iraqi factions have gone from an expectation that we’re short timers and we’re leaving soon, and hence they need to prepare the battlefield for the big version of the civil war to come when we leave, to a view that the United States is apparently going to be sticking around for years.

That perception changes their ability to take risks. Previously, the last thing they were interested in doing was anything that might have strengthened their internal opponents, even slightly. Now, on the other hand, they seem to be willing to try it out. For example the Shiite national government is much more willing to tolerate the idea of its former semi-enemies being set up as local territorial police, because they’re more confident that the United States is going to be around to keep these people honest.

Last but not least is the effect of the “surge.” That works together with this change in Iraqi perception of how long we’re sticking around. It’s substantially safer for both the government and Sunni insurgents to experience some reconciliation if they think that there’s somebody around to provide a safety net. The “surge” provided a visible combat presence of an additional five U.S. brigades in Iraq, and a big change in mission when they came out of the forward operating bases (FOBs) and into the cities and were visibly available to stabilize the situation.

I think what a lot of press have been saying is that because the Sunnis have left Baghdad, there’s no reason for any sectarian violence anymore in Baghdad, so that’s why the casualties are down.

Let me say something about this question of sectarian cleansing as a cause of the violence decline. That is a very widespread view, and although it’s not impossible I think it is unlikely to be a very large contributor for a couple of reasons.

One is that the violence in Baghdad was always at the frontiers of the cleansing efforts and, as the cities have gotten progressively cleansed, frontiers have been moved. It doesn’t get smaller, it just moves to the next neighborhood. But the idea that if the city is 10 percent cleansed it will be more violent, if it is eighty percent cleansed it will be much less so, misunderstands the nature of cleansing. All it does is it moves the violence around. It doesn’t reduce it unless the entire city is entirely one group, and even then it wouldn’t end it in Iraq as a whole, because these people have cars. They can move, and they do move quite a bit, from village to village, locality to locality.

If all of Baghdad were rendered uniformly Shiite, the cleansing effort would just move to the Baghdad outskirts like Abu Ghraib.  If they all got cleansed it would move to the next cities further out. Cleansing is unlikely to reduce the aggregate volume of killing and violence, it just changes its geographic distribution.

Technically, Baghdad is not in fact completely cleansed. Baghdad went from a Sunni majority to a small Sunni minority; Sunnis did lose the battle, but there is still a significant number of Sunni hold-out neighborhoods within the Baghdad community that are not yet cleansed, and which you could easily imagine being the focal points for a lot of violence if things were continuing as they were a year ago.

So there’s a kind of de facto cease-fire in Baghdad?

Yes, there is still some violence going on, but the large-scale violence that was being caused by big Sunni insurgent groups like the 1920s Brigades, or by the rank-and-file Jaish al Mahdi has largely stopped. I think that’s why all these violence indicators have been going down. The people who had been fighting against us have essentially switched sides and become local police.

Has there been any sign yet of any effort at high-level or even middle-level reconciliation talks between Shiites and Sunnis?

Lots of talks, but not much legislative progress. If you look at the big five legislative initiatives that we’ve been trying to pursue, for example, none of them has been signed as a law yet. But I think what’s going on, on that front, is quite interesting. Take for example hydrocarbon legislation and de-Baathification, the biggest of the big five. There are no laws passed yet on either one of them, and yet the government is distributing oil revenue to Sunni provinces proportionately to their populations. And the government is hiring Sunnis into the Iraqi security forces.

You get this very bizarre situation in which, even though they won’t pass the laws we’re leaning on them so hard to pass, they’re behaving as though the laws had been passed.

I think this phenomenon of the government behaving as though it has passed laws it refuses to pass warrants a couple more observations. I find this bizarre, so I don’t have a complete answer, but let me spin out a hypothesis as to what might be happening. One hypothesis might be that the Shiite government is still scared to death of the Sunnis and they’re reluctant to legislate iron-clad guarantees for the Sunnis yet. What they want to do instead is kind of dip their toe in the water and do some trial experiments with reconciliation.

For example, they are not willing to mandate that they absolutely must give the Sunnis oil revenue, but maybe they’re willing to try it a little bit as long as they retain the right to withdrawal it if it doesn’t work.

But if it works, maybe they’ll take another step forward. And I think a lot of this again has to do with their change in perception of the U.S. role here. If it looks as though the Americans have stabilized things and are willing to stick around, it becomes safe to engage in these little trials, this toe-dipping phenomenon. So maybe if we allow it to continue, it will blossom into something more.

So what should Washington do next?

I think the biggest question, and the biggest source of tension right now, is that given that these local deals are very unstable in all the ways that the press has been reporting lately, and the parties could easily flip sides right back again, it’s very important that we keep enough troops in Iraq to keep these deals stable. And yet there’s going to be huge pressure if the violence levels go down and stay down for awhile, to then pull the troops back out.

If we actually do that, I think there’s a significant chance that all these trends will reverse and all these deals will collapse.

The Democrats lately have not been talking about withdrawals, although all the candidates, as far as I know, are in favor of withdrawals if they win the elections, right?

Well they’re being very cagey about this, actually. As I read their platforms, assuming that they’re using these words advisedly, what they do is they talk about starting the withdrawal of combat troops. They often don’t talk about when to end the withdrawal, that is, when to complete it, and they also don’t talk about troop strength as a whole.

Again, if you parse all that very carefully, that’s not so different from the current administration’s policy. We’re starting a withdrawal of about a fourth of the combat strength already. Petraeus has announced that he’s going to be doing that if conditions continue to permit.

The difference between that and what the Clinton campaign and others have said so far is not as big as it sounds. Now one general interpretation of that is that they know this, and that they’re trying to describe their policies in ways that are as attractive as possible to the Democratic base, while enabling them to continue to influence events in Iraq as forcefully as possible. I don’t know whether that’s really what’s going on or not, but I find the language they use in this context quite interesting.

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