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The Fight Over Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 5, 2006


Iraq's sectarian violence has taken a turn for the worse and its security situation appears on the brink of all-out civil war, according to a new Defense Department report. Anthony Cordesman, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaking to's Bernard Gwertzman, gives the report a mixed review. Its economic coverage, he says, is "analytical rubbish," but its reporting of Iraq's security forces "has far more depth." Because of the worsening economic and casualty statistics out of Iraq, "[t]he political section, which outlines what the strategy is, is probably the only strategy we can pursue at this point," Cordesman says.

The report comes amid a concerted campaign by President Bush to win over more support for the war leading up to November's midterm elections. He disputes notions that Iraq has descended into a civil war and reiterated that most Iraqis "want peace and a normal life in a unified country" (AP).

Meanwhile, Iraq's neighbors are watching on nervously as events unfold in Baghdad. As this new Backgrounder explains, Iraq is surrounded by six states with oft-competing interests on issues of oil, religion, and democracy. None have quite figured out what shape a future Iraq should take. Turkey and Iran do not favor splitting up the country into three ethno-religious states because of restive Kurdish minorities within their own borders. Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors have deep reservations about Shiites being in control in Baghdad—part of a "Shia revival," as CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr has labeled it. Many already suspect Iraq has fallen under the sway of the theocrats in Iran, which, according to this report (PDF) from British think tank Chatham House, now wields more influence in Iraq than the United States.

Many of Iraq's neighbors, not knowing what the future may hold, have sought to improve their ties with Baghdad. Syria, as Joshua Landis tells Gwertzman, has forged a new dialogue and repaired relations after two decades of mutual distrust. Iran has hedged its bets by establishing ties with many parties and sects in Iraq. Jordan, fearing a failed state on its eastern flank, has assisted in Iraq's U.S.-led rebuilding efforts, according to the United States Institute of Peace's Scott Lasensky. No state in the region wants Iraq to become a terrorist training ground, à la Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Thrown into the sectarian mix are millions of Kurds without a homeland. Kurds in northern Iraq want greater independence from Baghdad and lay claims to the oil-rich city Kirkuk, historically an ethnically mixed place. Yet Ankara and Tehran are watching nervously for fear their own Kurdish minorities will follow suit. Kurdish extremists, most notably the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), have sought refuge in northern Iraq, creating frictions between the United States and Turkey. "The Turks are just agitating to go in," former Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke told Charlie Rose. Turkey has pressed the United States to intervene but, as CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook tells, "it would be foolhardy from a military perspective for the United States to go after the PKK and destabilize the one region where people really aren't shooting at Americans." A recent series of attacks against Turkish resorts by PKK-related militants has further inflamed Turkish-Kurdish tensions (The Herald Online).


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