Beware: Combat Will Continue in Iraq

U.S. soldiers carry the flag-draped remains of Army Specialist Jamal M. Rhett on Aug. 17. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

There is a real risk that President Obama’s claim in his Oval Office address that “the American combat mission has ended” in Iraq may come to rank with President Bush’s ill-judged boast of “mission accomplished” back in May 2003. Certainly, U.S. casualties in Iraq will not cease, though the toll of body bags will probably continue its three-year decline. The 50,000 American troops remaining in Iraq have as their mission now the training and support of Iraq’s own forces. But training for combat is a hands-on affair. U.S. troops will be going out on missions with the Iraqi units they are mentoring. American Special Operations Forces will continue their hunt for enemies wreaking havoc with car bombs. Firefights are inevitable.

Two worst-case scenarios loom on the Iraq horizon. The first is renewed civil war, the other is a return to military dictatorship.

The continued inability of Iraqi politicians to form a government, six months after an election, worries everyone concerned about maintaining peace in Iraq. The stalemate has roots running deeper than ego and ambition. Iraqi politics are a zero-sum game: the gains of one community are seen as losses for the others. Negotiations to form a new government have all run aground on the issue of who gets what.

Nuri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, narrowly lost the March election to a coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. Maliki, however, is determined to retain power. He’s an able leader in the tough-cop style Iraqis seem to respect. But neither in the election campaign nor in the negotiations since has he convincingly reached out to the Sunnis and Kurds. Nor does he seem inclined to do so. 

For example, the United States has urgently pushed for the Iraqi Parliament to pass long-stalled legislation that would guarantee each of Iraq’s communities a share of their country’s oil wealth. But in a dialogue over dinner a few weeks ago, one of Maliki’s top budget advisers dismissed any possibility of such a deal. All oil revenues, he said, should and would flow to the central government, to be disbursed as it thinks fit. Wasn’t there a risk, I asked, that the Sunnis would see this as a betrayal of pledges given? He shrugged. “The Sunnis have no leaders,” he said. And the Kurds? “They will settle for whatever they get.” Maliki, he declared, was “the only leader who wants to govern all of Iraq. All the others want to run only a piece of it”—Allawi owing his support and allegiance primarily to the Sunnis, he asserted.

It was an eye-opening insight into Shia triumphalism. After generations when the Shia were a despised majority brutally oppressed by the minority Sunni, U.S. intervention handed power to the Shia. Now the Shia intend to enjoy the rewards. Maliki shows no inclination to be Iraq’s Nelson Mandela.

Already, there are ominous signs that Sunni militias are regrouping. If Maliki does abandon the long-promised oil legislation—as his budget adviser seemed confident he will—many Sunnis will see that as proof of Maliki’s disinterest in abandoning zero-sum politics for true reconciliation. If internecine strife breaks out again, as it did in 2003, would American forces be able to stand aloof from the massacres that any renewed conflict would certainly bring? It’s hard to see how. American troops would regard passivity as a betrayal of their ideals. One U.S. military commander in Iraq remarked privately a year or so ago that the Israeli Army has never recovered its prestige from accusations that, having invaded Lebanon, it stood aside while Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982.

Does Obama realize this risk? His potted history in the address that “a war to disarm a state became a war against an insurgency” suggests he may not. What happened in Iraq from late 2003 wasn’t an insurgency. Insurgent groups like Al Qaeda added to the carnage, but the conflict itself was a civil war.

Obama argues that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from combat opens a new chapter in America’s relationship with that embattled nation. The administration hopes that the beginning of a U.S. pullout will concentrate the minds of Iraqi politicians and force them to agree a new government—one of "national unity," as Vice President Biden has urged on every visit. But Obama’s claim that America has “turned the page” ignores the more important reality. Iraq has not yet turned the page, either on the last blood-soaked decade or the years of deprivation under a savage dictatorship that preceded it. 

Now, Sunnis and Kurds see a continued American presence as the only guarantor of their place in the new order dominated by Shia. With mounting urgency, Sunni politicians have pleaded for the U.S. military to stay. The Kurds want a permanent U.S. base in the north. The pullback of U.S. troops that Obama celebrated in his speech—and the final American withdrawal scheduled for the end of 2011—opens the prospect that the Sunnis and Kurds will decide only they can secure what they see as their rights, by whatever means. Senior U.S. military officers with years of hard-won experience in Iraq take that prospect very seriously. As commander in Iraq and then at Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus argued as strongly as he could, in repeated appearances before Congress, that the Iraqis need, above all, time to heal their wounds and learn how to work together. Time is what the U.S. pullback denies them.     

A renewed civil war would be a catastrophe, probably pulling in Iraq’s neighbors. It would also likely pave the way for the second worst-case scenario: a return to military rule in Iraq. The ironic outcome of the billions the United States has spent rebuilding the Iraqi military and police is that its security forces are now the best-organized and most-competent institutions in Iraq. If the infant experiment in civilian democracy is unable to bring an enduring political bargain between Iraq’s fraught communities, a citizenry exhausted by years of torment could well decide that a military strongman is a price worth paying for peace at last. Would anyone in America regard that as an outcome worth $740 billion and more than 36,000 U.S. casualties?