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Measuring Progress in Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
June 22, 2006


As the war in Iraq is hotly debated in the halls of Congress (WashPost), a question continues to vex American foreign policymakers: Are we making any headway? A glance at various quality-of-life indicators and statistics on the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure—as explained in this new Backgrounder—indicate a decided lack of progress. Electricity output has flat-lined. Potable water remains scarce. And despite holding one of the largest crude reserves in the world, Iraq still produces less oil than Brazil, a nation known more for its black coffee than its black gold.

But these indicators, while important, do not paint a complete picture. More important, says CFR Senior Defense Fellow Stephen Biddle, is whether Iraq's main ethno-religious identities—the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—are making progress toward reaching a communal power-sharing agreement. Only such an arrangement, he argues, can reduce the cycle of violence.

A recent poll backs up Biddle's claim. Security, not jobs or round-the-clock electricity, is what ordinary Iraqis desire most. They have relied increasingly on alternative means—local militias, insurgents, organized criminals—to fill in the government's security void.

Can that change now that the new government finally has agreed upon ministers of defense and interior? In this new podcast, Matthew Sherman, former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, portrays Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani as free from the Shiite militia ties that hobbled his predecessor. Sherman says Bolani is "making good first steps," but will have his hands full bringing order to places like Basra and Baghdad, sites of recent sectarian conflict. Others are less sanguine. Phebe Marr of the U.S. Institute of Peace, in an interview with's Bernard Gwertzman, says she believes Iraq is "teetering on the brink" of becoming a failed state.

There are small signs the new government is becoming more inclusive. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in the spirit of national reconciliation, has sought to lure disaffected Sunnis back into the political fold. He recently released hundreds of mostly Sunni prisoners (Reuters). He proposed to offer amnesty—explained in this new Backgrounder—to Sunni insurgents without the blood of U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians on their hands. And he promised to revise the de-Baathification rules barring former loyalists of Saddam from government posts.

Iraqi and American officials hope momentum has shifted from the insurgency to Maliki's government. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking recently at CFR, says the next six months will be critical for Baghdad to restore order to Iraq. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's most wanted man, was "significant" but will not necessarily break the back of the insurgency, says veteran Middle East correspondent Mary Anne Weaver. Nor does Zarqawi's death soothe sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, as this Backgrounder explains.

A roundtable of regional experts, sponsored by Foreign Affairs, weigh in on Biddle's call for a power-sharing arrangement in Iraq. Lehigh University's Chaim Kaufmann claims "[p]ower sharing rarely works well, and in Iraq its prospects are especially bleak" because "the Shiites are too strong to want or need to share power, there is too little trust between communal elites, and no institution in Iraq is capable of guaranteeing anything to anyone."

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