The Magazine

The Future of Iraq

The decline of violence, the rise of politics.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
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The prime minister's decision to clear Basra of militias in March, followed by operations to clear Sadr City and Amara, has transformed the Iraqi political environment no less than the security environment. Iraqi forces, supported by the coalition, shattered the Sadrist and Iranian-controlled leadership of Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, of the criminal Shia gangs Iranian agents were cynically paying and using, and even of the Special Groups more tightly controlled by Iran. Iraqi and coalition forces killed hundreds of militia fighters and leaders, and thousands more fled, many leaving Iraq. Iranian-backed militias initially fought very hard in Basra and Sadr City, but then broke completely. By the time Iraqi forces moved into Amara, the remaining Shia militants had no stomach for a fight.

Maliki ordered the Basra operation on his own, against the advice of coalition commanders. The initial operation, inadequately planned and prepared, looked very ugly. The coalition rushed assistance to Basra in the form of planning staff, intelligence and air assets, and military advisers--but no combat formations. The Iraqi military also rushed reinforcements to the city, including the Quick Reaction Force of the 1st Iraqi Army Division based in Anbar. That formation, with a high proportion of Sunnis, marched into combat against Shia militias in an overwhelmingly Shia city--and were received as liberators. And after the initial setbacks, the Iraqi soldiers fought hard. The process was repeated in Sadr City, although coalition forces initially did play a significant role in direct combat in order to stop the rocket attacks on the Green Zone. Once that was accomplished, the Iraqis cleared the rest of Sadr City on their own, with the same mix of enablers the coalition had provided in Basra (albeit on a larger scale).

These surprising successes--which resulted from Maliki's initiative and occurred over initial coalition objections--have raised Maliki's stature in Iraq to a level never before seen. The change is palpable. Talking to Sunni sheikhs recently, I found a new tolerance for Maliki, whom they now see as someone who is at least sometimes willing to take on his own constituency for the good of the country. Many Sunni Arab leaders remain angry about Maliki's advisers' sectarian tendencies, but for the first time in my experience, Sunni Arabs are distinguishing between the prime minister and those around him.

Maliki himself--and even some of those "evil advisers"--learned interesting lessons from Basra. Hardline Shias in government have long feared the re-creation of a Sunni-dominated Iraqi army that could become, at least in their minds, a sectarian coup force. That is one of the chief reasons for early Shia efforts to seize control of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the National Police and the provincial Iraqi Police: Since the Shia believed they were preparing for sectarian civil war, it made sense to develop an independent Shia paramilitary force. But when the chips were down in Basra, it was not the interior ministry or the police that came to Maliki's rescue, but the Iraqi army--in the person of Defense Minister Abdul Qadr, a Sunni, and the Anbar-based Quick Reaction Force, which reinforced the city. Maliki and some of his advisers have taken note of that fact, and relationships even within the most senior governmental ranks have been shifting.

The destruction of the Sadrist Trend not only as a paramilitary force, but also as a cohesive political force, has also had profound consequences. Sadr himself did not stir from Iran while his loyalists were being hammered by Iraqi and coalition forces. Many of his movement's leaders were captured, killed, or driven off. The government's declaration that no political party would be allowed to compete in the elections without disarming its militia has broken up the Sadrist Trend as a political movement as well. Sadrist leaders who remain in Iraq are running as independents or joining other parties. Some say that they will re-form a Sadrist political movement after the elections, but it will almost certainly be a far weaker force than the one that gripped Baghdad with fear for so long.

Among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, tension with the central government remains high, but electoral politics are beginning to overshadow that tension. In Anbar, the leaders of the Awakening movement that helped defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq have formed a powerful political party. They mean to defeat the Iraq Islamic party and become the voice of Anbar. The IIP is responding to the challenge in various ways--some legitimate, and some less so. Everyone in Iraq thinks that one party or another will try to rig or steal the elections. Everyone I talked to said it would be best if there were an American soldier standing by every ballot box. They're probably right on both counts. But no one suggested that they did not intend to abide by the results of the elections. Of course, every party is confident that it will win.

Iraq's ethno-sectarian wounds have not healed--one might best say that they are starting to scab over. Tensions remain high along the Arab-Kurdish fault line in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces. Sectarian tensions are also high between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Diyala and in and around Baghdad. Nor are the Iraqi security forces quite as ready to take full responsibility for keeping the precarious peace as some of Iraq's leaders suppose. Flush with success and eager to appear strong and independent as elections approach, some of Iraq's leaders exaggerate their own capabilities, something that complicates our negotiations for a strategic partnership, among other things.

But even the most extreme of these hubristic Shia advisers strongly favor a partnership with the United States. "Iraq is flying west," one of them told me over a dinner of rice, kabobs, and masghouf (a fish dish). The debate over the details of the military arrangements for 2009 has overshadowed a much more important point, he said, echoing the comments of the young people at the party headquarters we visited: Iraq wants American help of every kind. The security arrangements must be seen within the context of this larger partnership, he added. Like American politicians, of course, he and the rest of Iraq's leaders have to figure out how to sell any specific agreement to the parliament--and to the voters. That makes negotiations difficult, but it is also the strongest possible sign of hope in Iraq.

The whole purpose of the surge was to transform the conflict over power in Iraq from a military to a political struggle. We and the Iraqis have accomplished that goal--for now. But the most critical period in the birth of a new Iraq lies ahead. America can stand beside this fractious and sometimes violent young state whose people are now passionate about democracy. Or we can abandon them to their enemies, to their own fears and insecurities, and to the fragility of their months-old efforts at real reconciliation. It is a weighty choice, but not a hard one for anyone who has seen the vision of a possible future Iraq.

Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War and the author of The Surge: A Military History (forthcoming).