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Treading Lightly in Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
September 4, 2008

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This week's U.S. handover of security operations to Iraqi forces in Anbar Province, once the base of Iraq's Sunni insurgency, brought an understandable gush of pride from U.S. military officers in Baghdad and policymakers in Washington. In a White House "fact sheet," the Bush administration declared "the blows we have struck against al-Qaeda in Anbar have implications far beyond Anbar’s borders." Iraq's national security adviser was more specific; he predicted the handover would lead to an economic boom (VOI). Anbar's fate even figured in the U.S. presidential campaign (NYT), with presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), calling the handover "a solemn and proud moment" for Iraqis and Americans.

Politics aside, few would dispute that improved security in the western Iraqi province is good news. After more than five years in which American forces did most of the heavy lifting, Iraqi forces are in control of eleven of Iraq's eighteen provinces; nearly 500,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have been trained by coalition counterparts; and two-thirds of formed Iraqi army battalions are capable of planning and executing missions without American support (PDF), according to a June 2008 Pentagon report.

But are the cheers premature? Patrick Cockburn, a veteran Iraq correspondent for the Independent newspaper, argues nothing is as it seems in Iraq, especially declarations of progress on security. A senior U.S. general responsible for U.S. troops in eastern Iraq insists that any drawdown of forces in Anbar will be incremental. "This is still a dangerous place," he told Associated Press a day before the handover.

At the heart of this unease is the uncertain future of the so-called Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq groups, Sunni tribal volunteers credited with restoring order to Anbar. Some of these groups took an active role in the anti-American insurgency until U.S. counterinsurgency strategy under Gen. David Petraeus shifted and Washington began wooing—and paying—these Sunnis to set aside their arms. The mayhem perpetrated by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which took Sunni, Shia, and other lives seemingly without discretion, contributed to this shift. In theory, these U.S. allies were to be integrated into the Iraqi security forces, now largely controlled by Shiites. Iraqi leaders say some tribal volunteers will be incorporated, but others fear Iraq's Shiite government may instead target Awakening leaders (NYT). Arrest warrants for some Sons of Iraq leaders have already been issued (NPR).

Brian Katulis and colleagues at the Center for American Progress warned in February 2008 such a backlash could unfold as "new political cleavages" (PDF) emerged between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis. CFR Senior Fellow Steve Simon made a similar argument in a May/June 2008 Foreign Affairs essay. The true test of such fears is rapidly approaching; the Iraqi government is scheduled to assume responsibility (WashPost) for the Awakening patrols on October 1.

Beyond security, regional power struggles continue to test Iraq's nationalist agenda. Iraq's parliament has yet to pass a provincial elections law. The law has been held up in part due to a lingering dispute over control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich region in northern Iraq coveted by Kurds, Turks, and Arabs. Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, says land disputes between Kurds and Shiites could extend beyond Kirkuk if relations continue to deteriorate. Additional unsettled political matters include a yet-to-be-signed oil law, and a status of forces agreement being negotiated between Washington and Baghdad.

The ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to navigate his way out of the lingering morass may be the biggest question mark of all. According to a Wall Street Journal editorial, the Anbar security handover is a chance for the prime minister's government to demonstrate its ability to remain above the sectarian fray. But to succeed, Maliki may need to increase his reliance on U.S. military support, something critics fear overconfidence (McClatchy) could make him unlikely to do.

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