The Magazine

Premature Iraqification

From the September 22, 2003 issue: Why creating Iraqi government and security can't be done overnight.

Sep 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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It bears repeating: Any action by the Coalition Provisional Authority that fundamentally compromises its relationship with the Shiite clergy is unwise. Whatever trouble the Bush administration thinks it is currently having in Iraq, it will look back wistfully to this time if the Shiites go into opposition. The bombings in Najaf have already partially reactivated the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-created paramilitary force behind the slain Shiite leader, Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. If there are any more major bombings in the Shiite south, especially in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the Badr Brigade will unquestionably become a permanent, active component of the Shiite landscape. So far, the Badr, along with the rest of the Shiite community, have reacted to al-Hakim's death and the attempted assassination of his nephew, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim, with equanimity. However, if the Coalition Provisional Authority missteps in the eyes of the Shiites in its rebuilding of Iraq's internal security forces, a collision with the Badr corps is by no means unthinkable. Indeed, the Authority should be prepared to preempt such possible hostility by trying to incorporate units of the Badr into any new Iraqi army.

Obviously, enormous care must be taken in building Iraq's future armed forces: This is easily the most critical task confronting the Bush administration. The finest decision of Ambassador Bremer in Iraq was to retire the remnants of the old, Sunni-dominated military. The retention of that force could have put us hopelessly at odds with the Shiites and Kurds, who are at least 80 percent of Iraq's population. However badly the U.S. military wants to share the burden in Iraq, it would be an egregious mistake to have a functioning Iraqi army before the Iraqi people have a constitution, to which Iraqi soldiers must swear their allegiance. Indeed, this is the yardstick by which we can best gauge whether Defense, panicked by the bombs of August, has become its own worst enemy.

Until recently, the bright minds in the Coalition Provisional Authority knew that the United States would be welcome in Iraq for no more than two or three years. After that, the Shiites, led by their very nationalist clergy, would likely declare the Americans defunct, no longer helpful to their political aspirations, which appear to be democratic. The authority's old birthing schedule--a constitutional convention within a year, a constitution within 18 months, national elections within 24--was a rough but sensible outline, which was to be shortened or lengthened depending on how much initiative the Iraqis displayed and how much encouragement the Americans gave them. Considering the tone and commentary now coming from the Pentagon, one has to wonder whether this outline has been jettisoned and replaced by a very loose slide rule that measures the maturity of Iraqi constitutionalism primarily by the American body count.

The sociology and politics of constructing a new Iraqi army aside, it also isn't clear that bigger internal Iraqi security forces are key to thwarting the terror-cum-guerrilla attacks of the former Baathists, Wahhabi fundamentalists, and foreign Sunni holy warriors coming over the Syrian, Iranian, and Saudi borders. It is certainly true that better Iraqi-generated intelligence about the whereabouts of these forces would greatly aid the coalition's efforts to destroy them. But it's not immediately evident why increasing the number of Iraqis under arms from approximately 50,000--the current level according to the Pentagon--to, say, 75,000 or 100,000 in the next year is going to make a decisive difference, unless the additional numbers come from the regions where the Baathists, fundamentalists, and jihadists are thriving.