The Magazine

A New Middle East, After All

What George W. Bush hath wrought.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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When provincial elections are finally held across Iraq, possibly this year, the Sunnis, too, may start to claim a bigger stake in a more representative political system in provinces where they dominate, if not in the country at large. Much more than national legislation (such as that recently enacted allowing more former Baathists to receive their pensions and reenter the government work force), provincial elections should spur meaningful reconciliation. Elections will help the Sunni Arabs create new political groupings that reflect who they are more accurately than their present national parties. And elections should help them recapture a healthier national consciousness and identify a more legitimate post-Saddam national elite.

Elections may provoke some violence. Indeed, preparing for both the provincial elections and the national elections due in 2009 will likely check any American effort to draw down U.S. forces significantly before 2010. Yet internecine Sunni battles sparked by elections are likely to be limited. The Sunni Arabs have always known that they need to hang together to survive the greater demographic and geographic weight of the Shiites and Kurds. This instinct--which once led the community to embrace al Qaeda and other extremists--will now, with the success of their own anti-al Qaeda "Awakening," likely keep intra-Sunni violence at bearable levels. Indeed, decisively losing the 2006-07 Battle of Baghdad has had a sobering effect on the community--witness the Sunni confessions, reported in both Western and Arab media, about how the insurgency, "misled" by al Qaeda, went too far in killing Shiites.

Perhaps the biggest danger for Iraq is that the success of the Awakening will breed a renewed Sunni hubris. The historic sense of Sunni entitlement, the Sunni Arabs' belief in their own martial and moral superiority over Shiites, was fuel for the insurgency. If the Sunnis' successful fight against al Qaeda also awakens a desire for round two with the Shia, then we will return quickly to where we were before General Petraeus took command. Provincial elections, and the campaigning around them, will indicate whether the Sunnis are now willing to let go of "their" Iraq.

Slowly and reluctantly, the Shiite-led government is incorporating the Sunni Awakening groups in Baghdad into the capital's police force. Now the government must also find a way to incorporate Anbar province's Awakening forces into a loose federal police structure, and the American Army must maintain payments to these new Sunni militias if the Shiite-led government refuses to do so. If the Shia see that these defense forces do not intend to challenge the government militarily--and this will take time--then a slow federalization of these disparate militias is possible. Patience, pressure, finesse, and a constant flow of American cash will be required to ensure the Awakening does not spook the Shiite community, which remains leery of former Baathists and al Qaeda supporters who have recently changed sides. The American embassy will have to work to persuade the government to absorb these units, tribe by tribe, town by town, into constabularies paid by Baghdad.

On the Shiite side, provincial elections carry risks. There has been considerable Shiite-on-Shiite violence, more than has been reported by the much diminished Western press in Baghdad. The Shia are likely to continue to fight among themselves, especially in the south, where there are no U.S. forces. These duels, which occur between Iraq's two largest Shiite forces--the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI)--and a variety of local armed groups have always had the potential for catapulting the Shiite community into large-scale strife.