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Iraq: Struggling Through 'Highest Risk' Window

Author: Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow
April 7, 2010

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Until the last six or seven days, violence in Iraq had become cyclical and predictable over the past year, with large bombings taking place every ninety days. The U.S. military assessed that these attacks were conducted by remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and believed the ninety-day planning cycle showed an overall weakening in AQI's potency. In addition, the attacks had focused on structures of state authority--ministries and government offices in August and October 2009--or of symbolic, high-profile value--hotels housing Western journalists in January 2010.

This past week has seen something altogether different in character, and potentially destabilizing. Targets have been Iraqi civilians, and the attacks have come with greater frequency and scope than seen in over a year. On April 5, there were at least five major bombings of civilian apartment buildings, which are difficult to defend in a city of 8 million people. Two days earlier, attacks targeted diplomatic missions in the capital and an Easter service at a Christian church. Last week there were bombings in Anbar and Diyala provinces, and civilians were killed execution-style in Arab Jabour, just south of Baghdad, and in Wasit province, along the Iranian border.

So what is happening in Iraq? Should this spike in violence cause the United States to revisit its steep drawdown of fifty thousand troops by August? And how, if at all, is this violence related to political instability in the wake of the March 7 election?

It is too soon to draw conclusions, but the pattern is troubling.

On the positive side of the ledger, Iraq has suffered far worse violence than anything seen in the past week. Nor are there signs of an unraveling situation. Indeed, the precursors to large-scale sectarian violence--which we saw in 2006--are not present. There are no signs of militias regenerating; Iraq's security forces are responding ably (as opposed to committing their own atrocities); and the government is continuing to serve in a caretaker capacity. We simply do not know whether the spark of sectarian bloodshed might once again be lit--but we now know for certain that AQI will try its hardest to do so. The coming months, therefore, will be extremely delicate, dangerous, and uncertain. Remember that the Samarra Mosque attack, which launched a sectarian war in Iraq, took place on February 22, 2006--nine weeks after national elections. We are today less than four weeks out from the March 7, 2010, elections, and months away from having a new government in place. General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has called the ninety days after an election the "window of highest risk"--and we are smack in the middle of that window now.

The August timeline should not be ironclad.

The White House is bound by two timelines when it comes to withdrawing U.S. troops. One was negotiated with the Iraqi government and part of a binding international security agreement. Under that timeline, all U.S. forces must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, a date carefully chosen over the course of an eighteen-month negotiation with the Iraqi government. This date offered maximum flexibility over the course of 2010 (the present year of uncertainty, with national elections and political change). The agreement further allows the next Iraqi government to request an extension of the 2011 date, to allow U.S. forces to continue training and advising Iraqi troops. Other than the Sadrist bloc, nearly every political party in Iraq would support that extension--and we should anticipate the request coming later this year or early in 2011.

The other withdrawal timeline--no more than fifty thousand troops in Iraq by the end of August 2010--is not binding. It was a unilateral U.S. policy decision, set in place by President Barack Obama shortly after his inauguration. In his speech announcing it, the president said he would consult carefully with the Iraqis and with his military commanders, with a door open to "tactical adjustments."

[M]ost of Iraq's violence is indigenous to Iraq--planned and perpetrated by AQI, which will never be part of the political process. Perceptions, however, matter more than fact, and these deeply held suspicions will raise the temperature as the government formation talks unfold.

Now may be the time to consider such tactical adjustments. To begin with, the March 7 election itself took place ninety days later than anticipated. Extending the August deadline by ninety days (to account for the delayed election) would provide military commanders with breathing space to focus intensely over the next three months on helping Iraqis stabilize Iraq. Without such an extension, our commanders must focus intensely on a logistical feat--removing fifty thousand troops and their equipment over the next four months--not seen since the days of World War II.

At the very least, the present withdrawal schedule injects additional uncertainty into a period of extremely high risk between now and August. It should not be set in stone.

Political instability will last through summer.

Adding to uncertainty is the political situation. We need to be realistic about how long the government formation process will take: Late summer is a prudent guess. The ups and downs of different political coalitions is a separate topic, but it is worth considering how the violence and our own drawdown will play into conversations now taking place in Baghdad. Shia leaders from top to bottom blame Syria for fueling the insurgency in terms of funding, training, and allowing transit for suicide bombers. High-profile visits to Damascus by members of Ayad Allawi's list shortly before the election fuel suspicion that there is political motivation to the violence. Sunni Arabs--and many members of Allawi's list--blame Iran for almost every problem bedeviling Iraq and for most attacks against Sunni Arab targets. Visits by Shia leaders to Tehran fuel Sunni suspicion that Iran is behind the violence we are now seeing.

In fact, most of Iraq's violence is indigenous to Iraq--planned and perpetrated by AQI, which will never be part of the political process. Perceptions, however, matter more than fact, and these deeply held suspicions will raise the temperature as the government formation talks unfold. Add our drawdown to the mix, and the pot begins to boil.

Indeed, there is a questionable assumption underlying the August timeline: that by withdrawing on a timeline we will "incentivize" the Iraqis to come together and settle their differences. There is no empirical evidence to support that assumption, and the precise opposite is probably truer: To convince moderates to make bold compromises, they must believe the United States will stick around. We know the argument, for example, that Iranians make to Shia parties when trying to convince them to act against our interests: "The Americans are leaving; we will be here forever--so why make your bed with them?" In short, nothing in Iraq gets easier if we are perceived as heading for the exits without regard to conditions on the ground or the wishes of Iraqi leaders. U.S. policies that reinforce that perception may well make the situation far more precarious.

But stay calm.

During the darkest days of the London Blitz, Winston Churchill famously said, "Keep calm, and carry on." That is a good motto for anyone working on Iraq policy. While these are far from the darkest days of the war, and there is reason to remain sanguine about the overall situation, it is prudent to constantly test the assumptions underlying key elements of U.S. policy. This is particularly true as new facts emerge. With a delayed national election, a closer than anticipated result, and an increase in violence, the assumption underlying the August drawdown is one that should be tested early and often. When living in a window of highest risk, why open it further?

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