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IRAQ: Toward National Reconciliation or a Warlord State?

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov 20 2007 (IPS) - While the vast majority of analysts here agree that sectarian violence in Iraq has declined sharply from pre-“surge” levels one year ago, a major debate has broken out as to whether the achievement of the Surge’s strategic objective – national reconciliation – is closer or more distant than ever.

On one side, advocates of the surge – the deployment beginning last February of some 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to help pacify Baghdad and al-Anbar province – claim that the counter-insurgency strategy overseen by Gen. David Petraeus has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

On the other side, surge sceptics argue that the strategy’s “ground-up” approach to pacification – buying off local insurgent and tribal groups with money and other support – may have set the stage for a much bigger and more violent civil war or partition, particularly as U.S. forces begin drawing down from their current high of about 175,000 beginning as early as next month.

One prominent analyst, George Washington University Prof. Marc Lynch, believes that Petraeus’ strategy of reducing violence by making deals with dominant local powers is leading to the creation in Iraq of a “warlord state” with “power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state.”

Even the surge’s proponents admit that the outcome remains unclear. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, a Clinton administration official who angered many of his former colleagues by supporting the surge when Pres. George W. Bush first announced it last January and loudly praising its results on the eve of a major Congressional debate in September, told the New York Times this week that “in military terms…the trends (in reducing violence) are stunning.”

At the same time, he added, “nobody knows if the trends are durable in the absence of national reconciliation and in the face of major U.S. troop drawdowns in 2008.”

President Bush has said he hopes to reduce U.S. troop strength in Iraq by next July to its pre-surge level of 130,000, while Pentagon chief Robert Gates has indicated his preference for a reduction to 100,000 by the end of next year.

That violence has declined sharply in recent months is no longer a source of much debate here.

According to the latest figures released by the U.S. command in Baghdad Sunday, the number of reported attacks – defined as car bombs, roadside bombs, mines, mortar, rocket, and small-arms fire – directed against U.S. and Iraqi security forces and civilians fell to less than 600 a week during the last month. That was less than half the weekly number of attacks recorded in June and the lowest level overall in nearly two years.

In addition to helping reduce the violence, Petraeus’ forces have also dealt major setbacks to al Qaeda in Iraq, particularly in al-Anbar and Baghdad, although most analysts believe that U.S. success on that front is due at least as much to Sunni insurgent groups that broke with al Qaeda several months before the surge got underway and subsequently allied themselves with U.S. forces to defeat their common enemy.

But alliance with U.S. forces against al Qaeda has not translated into a new relationship with the Shi’a-dominated central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, which has long been nervous about Petraeus’ courtship of the Sunni insurgents and tribal militias – renamed “Concerned Local Citizen” (CLC) groups – that have helped in the anti-al Qaeda fight.

“The Maliki government tends to see the CLC movement as a potential threat to (it),” according to Stephen Biddle, a defence expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who just returned from his second trip this year to Iraq where he met with top U.S. commanders.

“As a result, they’ve been dragging their feet,” added Biddle during a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, both at absorbing the 72,000 CLC members, who are currently each being paid 300 dollars a month by the U.S. military, into the Iraqi security force and in pushing key legislation through parliament that, in Washington’s view, would greatly enhance prospects for national reconciliation, most importantly between the Sunni and Shi’a communities.

Indeed, the government’s reluctance to act on the legislation – which covers such issues as equitable sharing of oil revenue, reversing de-Baathification, and holding regional elections – has become a source of growing frustration to U.S. officials here and in Baghdad.

In remarks to the Washington Post late last week, Petraeus’ second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, stressed that the current reduction in violence offered a window of opportunity for the government to reach out to the Sunnis, but that it was “unclear how long that window is going to be open”.

Odierno, who has also urged the central government to step up delivery of long neglected essential services to Sunni communities to help build confidence, added that if the regime failed to follow through by next summer, when U.S. forces return to pre-surge strength, “we’re going to have to review our strategy”.

That is also the view of ret. Col. Pat Lang, the former top Middle East analyst for the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) who has praised Petraeus’ tactics but has also been sceptical of the outcome.

“There is a chance now of restoring national unity on the basis of bargaining and power sharing across ethno-sectarian and regional lines,” he wrote recently on his weblog. “If the Baghdad government seizes that chance then a new Iraq can emerge. If…not, then the stage is set for a long drama of internal and external conflict.”

Lynch believes that the surge was doomed from the start and may actually have made things worse in the long run. “My sense has always been that the military strategy that’s been carried out has been successful, but the fatal flaw is that (it’s) not linked up to a general national reconciliation strategy,” he said.

“There is absolutely no evidence of any reconciliation between Shi’a and Sunni,” he added, noting a recent escalation of statements by some Sunni CLC leaders currently allied with the U.S. that, once al Qaeda is defeated and U.S. troops begin withdrawing, they will turn their guns against the government.

As threatening in his view is the likelihood that local CLC chiefs, whom Biddle himself described as “brutal, cruel leaders”, could well turn on each other. Lynch pointed to recent assassinations as indicative of growing rivalries for territory, resources, and status of the kind that has already has made oil-rich, predominantly Shi’a Basra a battleground for various Mafia-like factions.

“I see more fragmentation than consolidation,” he added – hence, his concern about the possible emergence of a “warlord state”.

Biddle is more optimistic, although he admits that what gains have been made could easily be reversed, particularly if the U.S. troop drawdown is too fast or too deep. “The central strategic issue (is) if someone’s not there to enforce these (local) deals, there’s a very serious risk that spoiler violence could play a catalytic role and cause all this to come tumbling down again.”

For now, U.S. forces should focus on achieving a “national ceasefire” that will transform their role from “war-fighting” to “peace-keeping”, according to Biddle, who stressed that Washington should try to keep as many troops in Iraq “as we can sustain…without breaking the U.S. military.”

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