Washington's Iraqi 'surge': where are the Iraqis?

About the author
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford.

The speech by President George W Bush to the American nation on 10 January 2007 may have been his last chance to bring radical change to his Iraq policy.

As such it was a relatively unremarkable affair - a slight rephrasing of old goals, with some italics, emphases and imperatives added here and there. The key element in the "new policy" will be an infusion of some 21,500 United States troops, to be deployed mainly in Baghdad (to deal with sectarian violence) and, to a lesser extent, in Anbar province (to fight al-Qaida and the Sunni-led insurgency). There will be an increase in financial aid as well, but Bush's key focus was on the military aspect. To the leader of the world's sole remaining superpower it must have been a sobering experience to have to address the nation in order to reposition six army brigades.

The political component of the new package was the least developed part of Bush's speech. This may have to do with the ideological support base for the "surge". Neo-conservative think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute have promoted the view that political settlement in Iraq can follow only after a restoration of security. At any rate, there was nothing new in the "benchmarks" listed by Bush: Iraqi draft laws on oil-revenue distribution, provincial elections and de-Baathification have already been in the pipeline for some time.

If anything, Bush's comments regarding the Iraqi constitutional-revision process - "establishing a fair process for considering amendments to the constitution" - sounded even more tentative than recent comments by the Iraqis themselves. (Under the Iraqi constitution the committee for constitutional change was supposed to have completed its work within four months of its appointment in October 2006; this period was however abruptly changed - apparently in violation of the constitution itself - to one year).

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit-Verlag, 2005), the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq. Many of his writings on questions of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation in southern Iraq are available at his website, http://historiae.org

Also by Reidar Visser in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's partition fantasy" (19 May 2006)

"Iraq lives" (22 November 2006)

The search for clarity

This lackadaisical approach to political reform in Iraq is alarming. In today's Iraq, a surge without a credible political component will be like pouring oil on a fire. During the past year, sectarian forces have been boosted to such an extent that today, out of each American tax dollar earmarked for national reconstruction in Iraq, a significant portion effectively goes instead to financing sectarian infrastructure. Only political reform - or more precisely, constitutional amendments that can recreate a sense of balance in Iraqi politics - can break this vicious circle.

True, the United States cannot impose solutions on the Iraqis in this matter. What it has never tried, however, is to negotiate a package with the Iraqis as equal partners, where obligations for both sides could be included - for instance as a timetabled, conditional surge. Bush also shunned a more multilateral approach, involving engagement with neighbouring states - as advocated by the Iraq Study Group, NGOs like the International Crisis Group, and Iraq's former defence minister, Ali Allawi. Rather, there will be more of the same: Washington will end up trying to nudge the Iraqis towards reform by way of backroom dealings and through pressure behind the scenes.

The one hopeful element in Bush's speech was his declared belief in "reconciliation" between Shi'a and Sunni and coexistence in Iraq generally. He is to be commended for this stance, which serves as a healthy antidote to what has become an unfortunate side effect of the anti-war campaign in the United States: the increasingly widespread fallacy that violent sectarian conflict in Iraq is both endemic and century-long. Bush has invested much symbolic capital in the vision of a unified Iraq, and on this theme his message resonates well with ordinary Iraqis as well as with people in the wider Arab and Islamic worlds.

However, due to the relatively vague character of the "benchmarks" in the new policy (and the fact that these matters are mostly internal Iraqi affairs) Washington will inevitably exercise its influence through informal means - and the Bush administration's exact interpretations of abstract terms like "coexistence" and "reconciliation" will become doubly important.

The "Nigeria plus" option

From Washington's viewpoint, two scenarios seem possible.

The first scenario - supported by developments in Washington towards the end of 2006 - could give the impression that Bush is aiming for a cleaning of facades rather than a thorough process of reconciliation in Iraq. Under this scenario, Washington would back selected Iraqi partners in a "moderate coalition": effectively creating the Shi'a politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim as baron of Iraq south of Baghdad and possibly anointing an Iraqi Islamic Party figure to a similar capacity in the Sunni west.

At some point, the US would instal Adel Abd al-Mahdi, their long-time favourite, as prime minister, while at the same time lending support to his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and the Badr brigades to suppress any political unrest by Sadrist elements or other discontents (Sciri successfully quarantined some of its military wings in 2006 to avoid confrontation with the Americans). The process of reforming the constitution would be completed, but - in a reflection of the increased power of Sciri - with minimal and symbolic adjustments only.

This scenario could generate a bullish prediction for the time of the 2008 presidential elections: that violence in Iraq could have come down to a manageable level (because much of it would be camouflaged as violence by US-supported "good" militia against elements defined as "terrorists" such as the Sadrists); that the oil sector would be open to foreign investment; and that the Iraqi government would have approved US bases to guard against any al-Qaida resurgence.

In short, this could function as a "Nigeria plus" situation (controllable internal violence coupled with government ability to deliver oil to the market) and victory could be declared in time for the elections. More realistically, however, this kind of strategy would probably backfire. It severely underestimates internal complexity in the Shi'a camp - including Sadrist resentment of Sciri dominance, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's consistent reluctance to be part of any kind of carve-up of Iraq to benefit foreign interests, and Basra resistance to Baghdad control of the southern oil resources (whether by Sciri, other Shi'a, or anyone else). At the same time this is a strategy that probably exaggerates Sciri's independence from Tehran, and it involves unrealistic expectations regarding Sunni preparedness to act as a compliant "ethnic minority", fenced in inside a Bantustan in western Iraq.

Also by Reidar Visser:

Comments on the Iraq Study Group report and George W Bush's speech on 10 January 2007 (Lapham's Quarterly)

"One Iraq or Three? Other People's Maps" (Wilson Quarterly, winter 2007)

The reconciliation option

The second scenario is that of Washington lending support to a genuine process of national reconciliation in Iraq. This would imply that the leaked National Security Council memo by Stephen Hadley (in November 2006) which favoured scenario number one was simply a hoax intended to prod Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki into a more energetic mode (in which case those Shi'a and Sunni factions that rushed to emulate Washington's blueprint will have stultified themselves).

This approach would mean engaging in dialogue with a greater number of Iraqi political factions, across sectarian boundaries, and including moderate factions in circles previously demonised by Washington - like the Sadrists. It would involve creating a perfect atmosphere for the revision of the constitution and its subsequent adoption in a referendum across Iraq's governorates. (This is the one act that still has the potential for achieving what thousands of US marines and billions of dollars in micro-loans cannot do: bringing closure to a period of internal conflict. Conceivably, fatwas from Sunni and Shi'a clerics could help.)

Not least, this strategy would demand some serious discussion with Sciri, to establish whether it wants to be a sectarian party or is interested in playing a leading role in national reconciliation in Iraq. Perhaps more than any other factor, Sciri's megali idea over federalism has upset the centre in Iraqi politics. It was this issue that prompted liberal Baghdad media to show their sectarian colours, and it is the completely novel idea of a Shi'a super-region that evokes fears of "foreign" meddling and "Safavid" or "Iranian" domination.

If Sciri could realise that the party might also stand to benefit from a system of smaller units (Basra and the mid-Euphrates, for example) this would do much to assuage the fears of the Sunni community (who have in fact moved on this issue: many now accept the idea of Kurdistan as a region along with single-governorate federal regions in the rest of the country.) In that, the many capable politicians in Sciri could take the lead in a process of truly profound national reconciliation in Iraq - a policy that ultimately would be in Washington's best interest too.

The Democrats' challenge

Members of the Democratic Party are now discussing how to react to Bush's speech, and are focusing on troop numbers - which is understandable. Nevertheless, there now appears to be an unprecedented willingness on the part of the Iraqi government to do something about sectarian violence (including that perpetrated by Shi'a militias), and also to be serious about national reconciliation.

Instead of cutting off funding at this stage, might it not be a more useful idea for the Democrats to concentrate their power of oversight precisely on those reconciliation issues? If a bipartisan focus on Iraqi national reconciliation emerged in Washington, a completely new dynamic in US-Iraqi relations could follow - with increased opportunities for US politicians to make sure that American money is invested in Iraqi nation-building and does not end up in militia coffers. George W Bush's surge seems to be one small step in that direction, but there is ample space for a constructive role by the new masters of the US Congress as well.