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Iraq’s Violence: What Can Be Done?

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

To be sure, not all is awful in Iraq today. One of the few bright spots is surging oil production, which has increased 50 percent since 2005. Iraqi Kurdistan, almost a separate country by now, is also flourishing. But the overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Feeling cornered, the Sunnis have fought back the only way they know how—with car bombs targeted against Shiites. This is the deadly strategy perfected by al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, and it is risking a repeat of what happened in those dark days when Shiite death squads retaliated by torturing and killing innocent Sunnis.

Problem is, while it’s easy to see the toxic trend, it’s hard to reverse it. The administration, never particularly interested in Iraq in the first place, lost most of its leverage when it pulled U.S. troops out at the end of 2011. Maliki is now hoping to buy high-end American hardware including F-16 fighters and attack helicopters, and that gives us a bit of leverage–but only a bit. Iraq is rich enough to buy from Russia or China or, for that matter, France if the U.S. decides not to sell it weaponry. 

There are, however, certain capabilities that the U.S. has that no other nation can match, and it is those that should be used to try to affect Iraqi behavior. As the Edward Snowden revelations have made plain, the U.S. has unrivaled intelligence capabilities, especially in the sphere of electronic snooping, which could be shared with the Iraqis. So, too, we have drones and Special Operations Forces that once helped to unravel al-Qaeda in Iraq’s networks. If sent back into Iraq, they could probably do it again.

Obama should offer Maliki the use of these forces and capabilities, but only on certain conditions: namely that Maliki start accommodating and stop persecuting the Sunnis. Specifically, he should re-start the Sons of Iraq program, which between 2007 and 2008 enrolled some 100,000 Sunni men to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. This pro-government militia was critical to the success of “the surge” in Iraq, and it could help to catalyze a new, smaller surge—one that would not involve any conventional American ground troops but that would send more Special Operations and intelligence personnel to work with their Iraqi counterparts. 

Re-establishing relationships which once existed between the U.S. and Iraqi military could pay further dividends by giving the U.S. side greater “situational awareness” of events in Iraq. This would allow American personnel to help their Iraqi partners in the security forces to resist Maliki’s attempts to misuse them for political purposes. 

It would also give the U.S. greater insight into Iranian machinations in Iraq: Iran has been gaining power ever since the departure of U.S. troops. Not having the U.S. support to fall back on, Maliki has turned to the Iranians for advice and support in fighting back against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Iranians are Shiite hardliners whose involvement only further radicalizes the Sunnis and makes the situation more toxic.

Greater U.S. involvement in Iraq is necessary to counter the Iranians, but it is unlikely to happen because it conflicts with Obama’s desire to pull out of the Middle East at all costs. The cocksure president is also unlikely to take any action which suggests that his 2011 troop pullout was a mistake—which it was. That, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that Iraq will continue to drown in a sea of blood.


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