Iraq still divides Democrats and Republicans like no other issue, as the campaign rhetoric of both parties makes abundantly clear. Liberals and conservatives can now more or less agree that Iraq is a much, much safer country than it was 18 months ago. But each side is peddling its own story about Iraq's extraordinary turnaround -- and both are wrong.
Many conservatives believe that the 2007 "surge" in U.S. troop levels directly produced the decline in Iraqi violence. Meanwhile, liberals argue that Iraq's warring Shiites and Sunnis spontaneously decided -- for their own internal reasons, unrelated to the surge -- to stop fighting. As is so often true of Washington debates, these arguments bear little relation to the reality of how Iraq actually pulled out of its death spiral, which is far more interesting than either partisan yarn. There was no single silver bullet, but rather a multifaceted strategy crafted and carried out by those in Baghdad -- not, despite recent claims, in Washington.
I came to this conclusion after reporting in Iraq for a total of 10 months since 2003 and after extensive interviews with Iraqi and U.S. leaders, as well as with troops in the most violent neighborhoods of greater Baghdad, the epicenter of the conflict. My biggest question was my simplest: How did Gen. David H. Petraeus do it?
My answer? Bottom line, for the first time since the war began, a U.S. leader decided to address the political motivations of the Iraqi combatants. Petraeus convened a study group that shrewdly analyzed the raging sectarian conflict, then came up with what he called "the Anaconda strategy" to address the underlying dynamic.
Petraeus and his diplomatic partner, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, realized that the first disastrous steps taken by the U.S. occupation authority led by L. Paul Bremer -- disbanding Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the old regime's security services -- had helped create the Sunni insurgency. They produced a critical mass of angry men worried that the Sunnis who had run the old Iraq would wind up on the bottom in the new one. Those fears were soon realized: Bremer's occupation government pushed for a sequence of poorly planned elections that wound up entrenching the power of a Shiite-dominated coalition, which began a "sectarian cleansing" campaign against Iraq's minority Sunnis -- and tilted the country into a full-on civil war.
While policymakers back in Washington continued to be duped by sectarian-minded Shiite politicians, Petraeus and Crocker set about using all available levers -- including thinking about Iraqi politics -- to rectify the earlier, catastrophic U.S. blunders.
The extra surge brigades certainly helped, but the number of U.S. troops was far less important than the new ways in which they were used. The most important new tactical move still gets scant Beltway attention: Petraeus's initiative to reach out to the Sunni insurgency and its base. "We cannot kill our way to victory," he said.
On June 2, 2007, Petraeus gathered his commanders and told them to engage with influential Sunnis and insurgents and persuade them to stop fighting. "Tribal engagement and local reconciliation work!" he said. "Encourage it!"
The policy was carried out on the battalion level, using troops deployed in U.S. outposts and in joint security stations alongside freshly trained Iraqi forces. "Don't let our bureaucracy stop you, and don't let the Iraqi government stop you," Petraeus urged his young lieutenant colonels, whom he often invited to join him for five-mile fitness -- and advice-dispensing -- runs around Camp Victory, the main U.S. base.
He was right to turn to his battalion commanders. Baghdad was being engulfed in growing mayhem: ever-larger car bombs, lethal copper projectiles, homemade explosives packed into sewer pipes that burned U.S. soldiers alive. But the U.S. troops persisted. Over the summer of 2007, the Sunnis responded en masse to the new approach: By September, according to U.S. officials and my own reporting, 15,000 Sunnis had signed up to become checkpoint guards and neighborhood watchmen, paid and monitored by the U.S. battalions that were being so carefully coached by Petraeus. The Shiite government was not amused; the last thing it wanted was its former Sunni foes back inside the fold. Still, by year's end, 70,000 Sunnis -- comprising the vast majority of the insurgents and their support base -- had joined the new U.S.-backed effort. This policy -- battled by bureaucrats both in Baghdad and inside the Beltway -- changed the tide of the war.
As the Sunni insurgents switched sides, they passed vital intelligence to their U.S. partners and paymasters, which enabled Petraeus's forces to target Sunni holdouts, including diehards affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. soldiers also employed new techniques to control the Iraqi population and provide for its safety and to identify fighters hidden among the civilians. For the first time since the war began in 2003, a shareable, computerized biometric registry of military-age males was created. This led to the detention of fewer innocents and more bad guys. Meanwhile, car bombings fell off dramatically after U.S. forces erected concrete barrier walls along sectarian fault lines, including the markets that had been the scenes of some of the ghastliest atrocities.
Why were so many Sunnis -- insurgents and civilians alike -- ready to respond to the U.S. overture? Because they were getting desperate and saw Petraeus's outstretched hand as their best chance of surviving a campaign of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing led by the Shiites and fueled by neighboring Iran. The secular Sunnis' alliance with the jihadist insurgents had always been an uneasy marriage of convenience, and it broke up when Petraeus made a better offer.
Another major change over the past 18 months is also poorly understood: the decision of the Mahdi Army, the radical Shiite militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr, to largely stop fighting. Sadr, a young firebrand Islamist cleric, raised a militia of poor youths to take on U.S. troops, even as he backed his fellow Shiite, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, through political channels. Then last August, Sadr abruptly declared a ceasefire.
That move has been widely misinterpreted as a spontaneous, unilateral gesture; in fact, it came after months of military and political pressure. Iraqi special operations forces, backed by elite U.S. combat advisers, conducted near-nightly raids against the most extreme elements of the Mahdi Army. In March 2007, according to Petraeus's staff, the special ops units captured Qais Khazali, a member of the radical Lebanese militia Hezbollah and a Sadrist militia leader. Khazali, U.S. military officials said, provided details of extensive Iranian assistance to Khazali's henchmen. This information, together with two assassinations of provincial governors by Sadrist forces, rattled Maliki -- and began to turn him against Sadr, a fellow Shiite who had helped put the prime minister in office.
The final straw came on Aug. 27, when Sadr's militiamen attacked guards at the main Shiite shrine in Karbala as a million worshipers arrived in the city to mark a holy day. An apoplectic Maliki rushed to Karbala, and the resulting confrontation led Sadr (then in Iran) to back down and issue his ceasefire declaration. Maliki then launched an offensive in Basra this spring to break Sadrists' control of the city, the port and oil pumping station. The wedge between Maliki and Sadr widened when massive arms caches of recent Iranian manufacture were discovered, despite Iran's 2007 pledge to desist stoking Iraq's nascent civil war.
That said, the intra-Shiite competition for power will persist for years; the trick is to channel it into politics, not violence -- and to continue to make use of the competition between Maliki and Sadr.
Iranian influence in Iraq is also destined to continue, but it's a double-edged sword. Iraqi Shiite groups are wary of appearing to be Iranian puppets, which would hamstring their popularity with Iraqis. Nor do many Iraqi Shiites fancy a Tehran-style theocracy. As Sadr's militia has loosened its control over many Shiite neighborhoods, ordinary Shiites have sighed with relief, glad to be rid of the thuggish behavior and the religious strictures imposed by some militia leaders.
Another key factor in Iraq's turnaround has been Petraeus's willingness to use his leverage with Iraqi leaders. Behind closed doors, the U.S. commander has frequently gone to the mat with Maliki as part of a "good cop, bad cop" routine that he and the unflappable Crocker have perfected. The veteran ambassador provided diplomatic sangfroid and insight into the region's historical animosities; Petraeus provided the raw muscle to maneuver the Iraqi government into making concessions.
Petraeus waded deeper into the political mire than most other U.S. generals would have. In one of my interviews with him last year, he confessed to me that he had shown the "full range of emotions" and had even feigned anger in order to move Maliki away from sectarianism. On his first tour in Iraq, in Mosul, the general had learned that it was sometimes necessary to bang tables and twist arms.
Getting basic services to Sunni areas was one key effort that required constant browbeating. When Petraeus was told that an Iraqi ministry official had refused to visit Dora, one of many Sunni regions still without electricity, trash removal and other basic services, I heard him bark, "Tell him if he wants a blue badge for the Green Zone, he'd better get down here." Petraeus also pushed the Iraqi parliament to pass de-Baathification reforms and other crucial legislation earlier this year. And not least, the general repeatedly bucked pressure from his civilian and military superiors at the Pentagon to declare "Mission Accomplished" before he felt that it was.
Petraeus's willingness to grapple with Iraqi politics made all the difference. His replacements' tasks will be more than ever political, not military. The former Sunni insurgency hasn't yet been woven into the political, economic and security life of the country, and the extraordinary success of the past 18 months is likely to unravel if Petraeus's and Crocker's successors -- as well as the next U.S. president -- do not finish that crucial undertaking.
No, the Iraqis can't finish the job on their own now; at the same time, no, we don't need 100,000 U.S. troops to stay in Iraq and do it for them. It would be heartening if we could understand the real record of Iraq's turnaround -- and talk about its future like grown-ups.
Linda Robinson is the author, most recently, of "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq."
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.