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Article published Dec 14, 2006
*Iraqis have to want us there*
"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."
So says the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of
State James Baker and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman
Lee Hamilton, whose long-awaited report was released last week.
objections from every point of the political compass: conservatives and
neoconservatives regard it as outlining a thinly veiled road to
"surrender"; liberals consider it a recipe for "more of the same" and
don't like its avoidance of withdrawal "timetables"; Kurds object to its
recommendations for increasing the power of the central government;
Sunnis think it is a capitulation to Shiism; Shiites don't like it for
its recommendations for reintegrating former Baathists and for more
power-sharing; Israelis object to holding a hand out to Iranians and
Syrians and to making a connection between the Palestine and Iraq
problems; Iranians say they won't cooperate unless the United States is
prepared to withdraw fully from Iraq; the president is clearly unhappy
with recommendations for reducing combat brigades and proposals for
incorporating Iran and Syria into the conversation about Iraq. I do not
envy the administration's problem in trying to clear away the path ahead.
Iraq's troubles are rooted in its history, and there may be no realistic
solution to its current problems other than allowing it to disintegrate
into its constituent communities, Kurd, Shiite and Sunni — with all the
chaos and ethnic turmoil that would inevitably accompany it. A
democratic, Western-style government may just not be possible in a
country riven by sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties and conflicts
with little or no sense of commonwealth.
Iraq was cobbled together by the British from three Ottoman provinces of
Mosul, Baghdad and Basra after World War I. The British then put a Sunni
king at the head of a government over a population that was mostly Kurd
and Shiite. The Kurds particularly have not liked being ruled by an Arab
majority, and the Sunnis and Shiites have each had their own internal
divisions for a long time. Ever since its creation Iraq has been held
together by a series of more or less authoritarian Sunni regimes, the
latest — and probably the most brutal — of which was that of Saddam
Hussein who held the country together by merciless repression of the
Perhaps it is time to face what may be inevitable. The alternative may
be an open-ended expenditure of American life and treasure (costs are
now running at $8 billion a month) to redeem a mistake that may be
irredeemable in any reasonable time period.
There is no reason Sunnis and Shiites cannot get along; they have in
other places and at other times. However, Shiites are a 15 percent
minority overall in the Muslim world and only in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain
are they a majority of the population. Among many Arab communities
Shiites are despised as apostates who had been given the truth and then
rejected it; they are generally the underdogs, the poor and oppressed,
and Iraq has been one of these places. It could take a long, long time
to overcome this history.
The Shiite-Sunni conflict began immediately after the death of Muhammad
in the year 632 as an argument over the leadership of the Muslim
community, with the Shiite minority arguing that the successor
leadership should follow the blood line of the Prophet. The term
"Shiite" derives from "Shiatu Ali" (the Party of Ali). Ali was the
cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, having married Fatima, the Prophet's
daughter. The dispute has lasted ever since and has been more political
than doctrinal. But it has been deep and unforgiving in many areas, and
it is a question whether it is wise for the non-Islamic West to intrude
in the dispute.
The Baker-Hamilton group has apparently not considered what might be the
best way of forcing the Iraqis to look into the abyss and to decide
whether they can come together on one key point: whether or not to make
a formal government request, endorsed by a parliamentary majority, for
coalition force to remain in the country in support of Iraqi forces. If
the Iraqis cannot mobilize themselves to do this, we should withdraw
after the six months that Prime Minister al-Maliki believes is needed to
make Iraq forces able to deal effectively with the current situation.
We cannot force ourselves on a majority who do not want our help without
further deepening our problems in the Islamic world and among our own
people. If they want us to remain, we should be willing to keep a
moderately sized force (50,000-60,000 troops) in country to provide
training, reconstruction and logistic support as long as both the
government and the "coalition" both believe it is necessary and
desirable. There should be no question but that the decision is to be in
the hands of the majority of Iraqis, and there should be no uncertainty
about the U.S. intention not to remain indefinitely, since suspicions
about our intentions remain high. If the Iraqis make such a request,
there may be a real possibility of getting international cooperation
through the U.N. in supplementing such a force with other international
contingents, including Muslim, thus relieving us from some of the burden
of reconstruction and training and producing a more politically
acceptable military presence.
My own experience in the Muslim world leads me to believe this is the
best way to resolve our dilemma. There is no policy option without
shortcomings, but I believe such an approach would be acceptable to a
majority of our fellow Americans.
Ronald I. Spiers of South Londonderry is a former undersecretary of
state and ambassador to Turkey and Pakistan.