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What’s Really Happening in Iraq?

The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

Perhaps Maliki should not have timed the raid on the Ramadi protest camp in the manner he did, and it is unfortunate that the timing appears to have been colored by partisan politics: With the elections forthcoming in April, the theory that Maliki ordered the raid to prove his “Shi’ite” credentials is believable among a wide segment of Iraqi society. It would also be good to reinforce the notion of blind justice by moving with similar seriousness against those Shi’ites and Kurds who engage in murder and terrorism. Again, the answer to that is not immunity for the perpetrators in al-Anbar, but rather greater action against Shi’ite abusers of Iraqi law.

The spark, however, was the raid on the Ramadi camp. According to residents of al-Anbar, most residents of the protest camp were unemployed youth who joined the camp both for the free food and the camaraderie. Residents do acknowledge supporters of al-Qaeda were present—and, indeed, their presence is undeniable and caught on YouTube videos—but locals dismiss the al-Qaeda presence as few and far between (somewhat akin to the way “International ANSWER” or “Code Pink” show up at random protests to try to hijack the press attention).

Perhaps, however, the al-Qaeda presence was underestimated: After all, al-Qaeda didn’t spontaneously organize to the point that they could seize Fallujah in just a week. The al-Qaeda presence was not created in the mind of the prime minister, as it is too easy to imagine from the safety of Washington or New York.

It is fashionable to blame Baghdad for the alleged discrimination which fuels the unrest in Al-Anbar but, once again, the situation is more complicated. There are huge differences in the proportion of allocated budgets actually spent from province to province. The way the Iraqi system works, some governors explain to me, is that the province has a budget, but only when a certain amount of money is spent will they receive the next infusion of cash. Kirkuk spends almost all of its budget, and has the results to show for it. In Ninewah and al-Anbar, the proportion spent is miniscule. What is unclear is whether the reason for that is a capacity issue in Mosul and Ramadi, or whether there is some bureaucratic blockage in Baghdad. Either way, if the protestors simply buy into the sectarian rhetoric, they will be no further to solving the very real problems which impact predominantly Sunni areas.

Political culture is also a problem. One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting and analyzing Iraq is meeting politicians of all backgrounds in their homes, offices, and in restaurants and hearing their assessments of the situation: They are down to earth, calm, and assess the situation rationally. Put the same politician in front of a television camera, however, and the personality shifts 100 percent: it’s fire and sectarian brimstone. Iraqi politicians all acknowledge the problem, but no one is willing to address the problem.

Within the United States, the surge colors analysis. The surge was a very successful military strategy in the short-term, but it created and exacerbated very real long-term political problems. General David Petraeus sometimes promised what he did not have the power to implement, and throughout his career seems to have prioritized short-term stability and security over the long-term viability of his strategies. If the situation went to heck after his departure, too often his successors would be blamed even if the seeds had been sown under his command. The unfortunate fact is that the surge rewarded violence and convinced some elements of Iraqi society that if they simply hold out longer or threaten (or even engage in violence), that they can win concessions through violence that they will never win through the ballot box. Proponents of the surge may not like to see the long-term consequence tarnish their legacy, but to pin the blame on the prime minister would be dishonest: the problem isn’t Maliki, but rather the absolutist vein which continues to course through Al-Anbar’s body politic.

So what can be done? A civil war in Iraq would be tragic, but offering concessions in the face of terrorism would simply pour fuel on the fire. If terrorism is motivated by ideology and, indeed, when facing al-Qaeda, both Iraq and the West are facing a corrosive ideology, then the only solution can be to kill the terrorists. Secretary of State John Kerry might be right when he says the United States no longer should be involved in the fight inside Iraq, but let us hope then that the United States will not get squeamish when Iraqi security forces do what must be done.


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