The Magazine

What Is To Be Done in Iraq?

From the May 3, 2004 issue: A plan for dealing with every faction.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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SO, what do we do in Iraq? It is obvious that the Bush administration and its distant and sometimes independent offshoot, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, have been knocked off balance by events. It's not the first time, of course. The Baghdad and Najaf bombings of August 2003 unnerved Washington. But the "insurrection" of April 2004 appears to have completely disoriented the administration. Whether it is dealing with the Sunni Arabs, particularly those attacking and resisting U.S. forces in Falluja, or the Shiite militants behind the radical young cleric Moktada al-Sadr, or the anti-radical Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, or the United Nations and the Europeans, the administration certainly doesn't convey the impression that it has any plan left--except to (convincingly) promise perseverance and cross its fingers and hope that the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi can devise a new political roadmap for the transfer of sovereignty on June 30.

At this point, it is worthwhile to remember that the vast majority of Iraqis are still probably on "our side," that is, they sincerely want a peaceful and workable transition of sovereignty that leads to a functioning, democratic Iraq. Given all the violence, and the enormous political problems that lie ahead, it is easy to forget this datum. Among the Shiites, and the Kurds, and even the Sunnis, it is not hard to see the desire to make things work. Though the June 30 deadline has made both American and Iraqi pulses race, we still probably enjoy more margin of error than we think we do, because relatively few Iraqis--certainly very few senior clerics in Najaf, who are the most consequential political players in the country--want chaos or a return to dictatorship. It's not unlikely the Bush administration will in the end be forgiven its worst mistakes and the problems that would have occurred even if the CPA had played a better hand. The Sunni "insurrection," for example, was in all probability inevitable. Would that we'd rounded up sooner more men from Saddam's elite military units, the intelligence and security services, and the paramilitary storm troopers, but these folks were going to come for us in any case. Ditto the Sunni militants and foreign holy warriors who have no intention to allow a Shiite-led democracy to take shape. And if the CPA had adopted the anti-Shiite mentality present in the voluminous, much-touted, but seldom-read State Department guide to Iraqi reconstruction, things in Iraq could be far worse. Sometimes poor--or no--planning is better than stacks of consistently bad ideas.

But what do we do now? Let's divide Iraq up into its principal sects--Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, U.N. bureaucrats, Europeans, and Americans--and work through them.

The Sunnis. What is the CPA trying to accomplish in the siege of Falluja? It is at this point unclear. If it is trying to send a clear signal of American resolve to the ex-Baathists, Sunni fundamentalists (and Falluja has been a crucible for Wahhabism in Iraq), and foreign holy warriors, it is failing. Just a glance at the Arabic media gives the opposite impression: The brave denizens of the town have successfully defied the American occupiers. Falluja has become a rallying cry. Even Iraqis who hate the insurrectionists may start to flip on us because the Americans appear to be engaging in an endless military action. Iraqi nationalism is a real and fickle thing. Even Shiites who would be thrilled to see the American military maul the ex-Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists fortified in the town (better the Americans deal with them now than we have to later) could start to turn if the United States undertakes a protracted siege. The Shiites may distrust the satellite channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabia for their pro-Saddam bias through the years, but nonstop images and sounds of the Falluja siege with innocent civilians dying day after day will start to tweak Iraqi nationalist nerves. Soon we could be in that very unpleasant situation where even our most steadfast Shiite allies start to say nice things about Iraqis they detest. And we should not forget the effect that this has upon Sunni holy warriors. Bin Ladenism is primarily fed by the appearance of American indecision and weakness. Inside Iraq and out, the "resistance" of Falluja is a godsend for holy warriors like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an al Qaeda acolyte who has been behind many of the suicide bombings.