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Understanding Iraq

Baghdad remains the political center of gravity, whose capture or isolation is a key goal of the Sunni insurgency and its foreign supporters.
by Lawrence Sellin
UPI Outside View Commentator
Washington (UPI) Nov 02, 2006
The debate over the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has obscured another U.S. intelligence weakness. This weakness has also affected U.S. planning or execution weakness and has therefore contributed to America's current difficulties countering the insurgency in Iraq.

More than three-quarters of the Iraqi population have ties to one of over 100 tribes, which provides religious and cultural identity and, in a power vacuum, an alternative government. Yet the influence of tribalism in stability and counterinsurgency operations has been largely underestimated.

It is not universally appreciated that Saddam Hussein, during the course of his rule, was required to make continual adjustments in his power base, balancing the often competing interests of state tribalism, selected military and paramilitary organizations and Baath party ideology.

With remarkable prescience, Faleh a Jabar, writing in Le Monde diplomatique in 2002, described the rise of tribal influence which provided an incubator for the battle raging in Iraq today. The combined impact of the Iraq-Iran War and the Persian Gulf War undermined the Baath party's organizational structure and led to the re-emergence of age-old kinship networks, reconstructed many real tribes and invented new ones.

These powerful social movements filled the void created by devastated civil institutions and a damaged state, a quasi-government, guarantor of law and order and the defender of life and property. They operate in urban centers, rather than their natural rural habitat, which endangered the fabric of an urbanized and cultured society.

Reestablishing central control in the absence of an active insurgency would be difficult enough. As Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. noted in his 2005 Foreign Affairs article, "creating a coalition out of these groups would require systematically mapping tribal structures, loyalties, and blood feuds within and among tribal groups; identifying unresolved feuds; detecting the political inclinations of dominant tribes and their sources of power and legitimacy; and determining their ties to tribes in other countries, particularly in Iran, Syria, and Turkey."

This effort is further complicated by the presence of transnational terrorism and the counterproductive actions of Syria and Iran. Given a noticeable lack of a suitable strategy, the current situation may present insurmountable obstacles or unacceptable costs to achieving the goal of a united Iraq, at least how it was envisioned three years ago.

The United States needs to develop a strategy based on the worst-case scenario. If fragmentation of Iraq is inevitable, then the best course of action may be to step back, focus on development of areas of stability, and leverage the religious and tribal differences to destabilize the opposition. As the insurgency enlarges its area of control, they themselves become targets of opportunity or a fertile environment for an insurgency within the insurgency.

Faleh a Jabar described how the Iraqi Baath party successfully leveraged lineage as the definitive tribal trait and the heart of Arab nationalism. For example, the Arab population of the Iranian province of Khuzestan may provide a counterweight to Iranian interference in Iraq through fermenting cross-border Arab nationalism.

Baghdad remains the political center of gravity, whose capture or isolation is a key goal of the Sunni insurgency and its foreign supporters. It is unlikely that either the United States or the Iraqi government will be able to quell the violence in the Sunni-dominated regions in the short term. These areas, however, have limited economic value, being composed mainly of sand. The main oil-producing areas are in the Kurdish north and the Shiite Arab south.

For the time being, containment and quarantine may be the only option. The Saudis, who often brag about their ability to deal with terrorists, should be encouraged to use their money and skill to quell the insurgency in the Sunni-dominated areas.

Nation-building efforts might be more productive by focusing on regions that would prefer the United States to win, like the Kurdish north. Getting their oil production up and fostering accelerated Kurdish economic growth could provide a center of gravity in terms of stability and a potential irritant to Iran, given their own restive Kurdish population just across the border.

Jealousy of Kurdish success is also a powerful motivating force for the other areas of Iraq, which, although "vanquishing the occupier," will soon grow weary of the chaos and heavy-handed tactics of the militia groups. These groups are no less susceptible to fragmentation and the effects of cultural tribalism.

Accepting and adjusting to the peculiarities of the operating environment in Iraq, exploiting the potential weaknesses of our adversaries and using a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer, could give a whole new meaning to the term "staying the course."

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

Related Links
Iraq: The first techonology war of the 21st century
News and analysis about the Global War Against Terror at SpaceWar.com

Averting Defeat In Iraq
New York (UPI) Nov 02, 2006
Although President George W. Bush, in his most recent news conference, provided a more somber assessment about the horrifying situation in Iraq, he still insisted that the United States can win in Iraq by remaining committed to staying the course, albeit with some tactical changes.







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