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Sorting Fact from Violence in Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: June 15, 2007

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The key to understanding progress in Iraq may be in the metrics. U.S. troops are expected to hit their high point at the end of June. Current numbers stand at around 150,000, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, the highest levels since May 2003. Moreover, Iraqi security forces are just shy of 350,000, a threefold increase from their May 2004 levels.

Yet the violence, sectarian or otherwise, has only worsened, particularly outside the capital, according to a new report by the Pentagon (WashPost). Insurgents recently blew up (ABC) the minarets on an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, the site of a February 2006 bombing that marked a major turning point in the war. Iraqi civilians are still dying at a rate of around one hundred per day. May was one of the war’s most deadly months for U.S. forces, and monthly attacks by insurgents are now well over four thousand. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government appears as divided as ever and looks likely not to meet many of the political “benchmarks” set by U.S. lawmakers (NYT).

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, sees reason for optimism. Speaking at CFR's New York headquarters on June 15, 2007, he argued that, in spite of neighbors who wish his government ill, the “surge” shows signs of working. Indeed, U.S. military officers can cite progress in Anbar province, Iraq's wild west, where violence has receded in recent months. As reported in the New York Times, the U.S. military has also undertaken a risky plan to arm Sunni factions with ammunition and cash to exploit a growing wedge between homegrown ex-Baathists and foreign Islamists. In exchange, the Sunnis have agreed to furnish U.S. officers with intelligence (i.e. the locations of roadside bombs).

Some military analysts question the efficacy of the so-called “Anbar model” strategy. First, it runs the risk of arming one side in a potential civil war. Some analysts, including Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, say there’s a similar danger in the U.S. military’s “standing up” of Iraq’s predominantly Shiite security forces. Second, this strategy risks further alienation of the Shiite government in Baghdad at a time when U.S. lawmakers are clamoring that political benchmarks be met. Finally, the U.S. military may be arming the enemy. U.S. tacticians are counting on a widening rift between local Sunnis and foreign jihadis, but it remains difficult in Iraq to determine who is the enemy and who is a collaborator without biometric data, as this Backgrounder suggests. Plus, previous U.S. efforts to reach out to insurgent leaders produced scant progress.

John F. Burns of the New York Times calls the U.S. plan to arm Sunni insurgents an “act of desperation,” a strategy employed with varying results in previous insurgencies in Algeria, Malaya, and Vietnam. Yet CFR’s Stephen Biddle applauds the gambit to pressure the various political factions in Iraq with a mixture of sticks and promises. “If the Shiite-Kurd alliance refuses to compromise, they must be threatened with abandonment or even U.S. assistance to their Sunni rivals,” he wrote last year in the International Herald Tribune. Conversely, if the Sunnis refuse to compromise, “they must be threatened with full U.S. support for a homogeneous Shiite-Kurd army.”

Many experts argue that Iraqi politics increasingly is migrating to the local level, that what happens inside Iraq's Green Zone matters less. CFR's President Emeritus Leslie Gelb disputes the notion that there is no capacity at the local level for a federalized system of government in Iraq. “That's correct if you're talking about who is going to be the mayor of a town,” he tells the Asia Society, “but if you're talking about who is going to run a regional government, the Kurds have already demonstrated they're quite capable of doing it.

U.S. officials are beginning to ratchet down their expectations and now realize that national reconciliation, at least in the near term, may be unattainable. As such, the U.S. military's longer-term strategy now seems to mirror a much-discussed option from a 2006 Pentagon report: the so-called “go long” approach. As reported in the Washington Post, military officials expect that following a major drawdown of U.S. forces by the middle of next year, a “post-occupation” troop presence that includes roughly ten thousand advisers may need to remain indefinitely in Iraq. This new Backgrounder examines what effects the extended tours of duty have had on U.S. troop morale.

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