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Facing Realities In Iraq

"The splintering of Iraqi society undermines the effectiveness of the country's national security forces and helps explain their poor performance in combat, as we have predicted in these columns over the past 18 months." Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) July 09, 2007
A year and a half later than they should have, but still better late than never, top U.S. military commanders in Iraq are finally waking up to the political and social reality of the splintered, militia-controlled society they are dealing with. As we wrote in these columns more than 11 months ago, on Aug. 6, 2006: "Since the Feb. 22 al-Askariya bombing, the security situation has been infinitely worse than a simple insurgency waged from within Iraq's 5 million-strong Sunni Muslim community, which comprises less than 20 percent of the total population."

We stated frankly then: "The U.S. government and its own forces have no control over the widespread network of Shiite militias that are increasingly the real political power among most of the 60 percent Shiite majority in Iraq. They have been unable since Feb.22 to prevent many of these militias from carrying out continuing waves of reprisal killings against Sunni civilians.

"Also, the Shiite militias already have vastly more power than the Sunni insurgents ever did. They have strong ties to all the new Iraqi security forces, which in reality are controlled by and run by Shiite senior officers. They have enjoyed strong ties to successive Iraqi governments including the current one of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Some five of Maliki's Cabinet ministers and a bloc of 30 members of the new Iraqi Parliament among his supporters are loyal to Moqtada Sadr, the charismatic, firebrand and most anti-American Shiite militia leader who runs the Mahdi Army. Sadr and his Mahdi Army are powerful in the 2 million Shiite stronghold of Sadr City within Baghdad and are at the heart of an increasingly tightly coordinated network of Shiite militias across the southern half of the country."

At that time, 11 months ago, as we reported, there was "no sign that the U.S. Army commanders in Iraq, their civilian masters in the Pentagon or policymakers in the National Security Council have yet paid any serious attention to the possibility that the Shiite militias in Iraq may eventually attempt a general uprising against U.S. forces."

That situation has changed in the months since Gen. David Petraeus took over as coalition forces commander in Iraq.

Last week one of America's most respected military analysts, Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, documented in a new CSIS study that U.S. forces in Iraq were finally making some effective headway against al-Qaida insurgents by recognizing the more effective nature of locally based and recruited security forces and militias -- Sunni as well as Shiite -- and by cooperating with them accordingly.

As we have noted before in these columns, since Feb. 22, 2006, when the al-Askariya mosque was first bombed, what we have described as "Beirut rules" or "Belfast rules" have applied in Iraq: These are the rules whereby national armies, occupying forces or international peacekeepers try to maintain order and security and try to prevent the massacres of thousands more people in situations where central government has totally broken down. Beirut and Belfast rules apply when sectarian-based militias hold power in nations that have already splintered or fragmented into conditions of civil war.

Iraq is already in that condition. Now -- at last -- U.S. military commanders on the ground, with the clear recognition and encouragement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have recognized this reality and have started to come up with new strategies appropriate to the problems they now face.

The new U.S. policies
What are the U.S. armed forces doing right in their current operations in Anbar province of central Iraq? Under the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus, the coalition forces commander in Iraq, they are working with locally recruited, independent and already operating security forces rather than ignoring them or seeking to suppress them.

The results, while not conclusive, have been positive, and the prospects are the first signs of real hope since before the Iraq elections in late 2005 produced a disastrously polarized and deadlocked parliament in Baghdad.

"Anbar does seem to represent a growing success against al-Qaida, although it is far from clear how much this success extends to the other Neo-Salafi Islamist extremist groups supporting the worst elements of the insurgency and Sunni extremism," Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, wrote in a new study released last week.

"There are signs that similar efforts are taking place in Shiite areas to check the actions of the worst militias, and that similar efforts may be possible even in high conflict areas like Diyala," Cordesman wrote.

"The positive aspect of this largely self-initiated Iraqi effort is that at least in Anbar, the tribes have not created forces totally under their control," he wrote. "Instead, they are joining the Iraq Security Forces and creating local security forces registered with the government."

"These local forces have formal ties to the government," Cordesman wrote. "They are being created in ways that follow a precedent set in creating similar forces in the Kurdish area. They only get weapons, training and pay if they formally enroll as supporting the police and swear allegiance to the government."

Cordesman wrote that the success of the new U.S. security policies in Anbar set an example of relying more on locally raised Iraqi security forces to maintain law and order in their districts.

Cordesman explained the reason why these local forces were so much more effective than the enormous Iraqi national army and police organizations that the United States has painstakingly raised, funded, equipped and trained amid so much fanfare over the past few years.

The "increasing reliance on local security forces with cosmetic or tenuous ties to the Iraqi force development effort is paralleled by steady process of sectarian and ethnic displacement on a local and national level," he wrote.

"This process of displacement, and sectarian and ethnic 'cleansing' is largely ignored in unclassified U.S. reporting on the war that focuses on attacks, killed and sectarian incidents." Cordesman continued. "The fact remains, however, that much of the country (divided) into local factions and authorities -- most unelected or elected under conditions that made effective campaigning impossible -- is making a weak central government steadily weaker. It also is doing more and more to separate the country," he warned.

The splintering of Iraqi society undermines the effectiveness of the country's national security forces and helps explain their poor performance in combat, as we have predicted in these columns over the past 18 months.

"Power in Iraq is becoming steadily more fragmented and local, and creating steadily more serious problems for effective development," Cordesman warned.

And he also cautioned, "Even if (U.S. President George W. Bush's military) surge succeeds in tactical terms, the central (Iraqi) government may not be capable of meaningful conciliation by any foreseeable means through the central government, or be able to bring local security through a mix of the Iraqi Army and police it can truly control," Cordesman wrote.

"At a minimum, any effective U.S. strategy to either stay in Iraq -- or to withdraw in as positive or constructive a way as possible -- must fully consider the impact of each of these kinds of separation and displacement," he wrote.

"Practical planning cannot be based on achieving stability and security by federation or separation imposed from the outside or through the constitution," Cordesman wrote. "Power is devolving in ways that do not conform to the border of the governorates or lend themselves to smooth lines of separation. To paraphrase an American political axiom, all power seems to be becoming local power. This means that U.S. and other efforts to help Iraq must recognize these trends, and tailor efforts to provide aid in politics, governance, security, and economic development accordingly."

As Cordesman rightly cautions, the relative success of the new U.S. strategy in Anbar does not guarantee U.S. "victory" in Iraq or the eventual stabilization of the country. But for the first time, it offers the prospect of weakening and possibly defeating extreme Islamist forces by isolating them from the wider society.

The great advantage that the new strategy -- which we have repeatedly advocated in these columns over the past 18 months -- gives U.S. forces is that it allows them to acknowledge the social, political and security realities of Iraq, and to work with them, rather than being forced by their political overlords to impose policies that simply alienate everyone because they have no relationship to true conditions on the ground.

And the reason why Petraeus and his commanders are at last free to make those changes is because they are responding to very different political masters in Washington from the ones who wrecked Iraq and made a shambles of U.S. policy there for most of the past four years.

Next: The Gates revolution

Source: United Press International

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