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Week of 9.14.07

The Future of Iraq

Brian Katulis NOW asked Middle East expert Brian Katulis about the prospects for political reconciliation, refugees and the impact of a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. At the Center, his work examines U.S. national security policy in Middle East with a focus on Iraq.

NOW: What will be the long-term result of the current Sunni tribal cooperation with American Forces in the Anbar province?

BRIAN KATULIS: At this point, it is not very clear that this tribal cooperation will lead to long-term stability in Iraq. Thursday's killing of a key tribal leader that President Bush met with raises questions about whether this initiative truly represents "bottom up" reconciliation and will result in sustainable security.

After experiencing brutal atrocities at the hands of foreign fighters and other extremists, certain elements of the tribes formed an alliance to address this threat—long before the 2007 surge of U.S. forces began. U.S. commanders took advantage of these changing dynamics by offering financial support and cooperation to these tribal elements, as well as helping create "irregular" forces drawn from Sunni tribes to police local communities.

There are two main risks to this initiative. First, key leaders in the Iraqi central government have expressed their unease and in some cases outright opposition to these efforts because they saw it as undermining the Iraqi security forces linked to the central government. Serious questions remain about whether these Sunni irregular forces will be integrated into Iraq's Army and police. Given the lack of consensus and deadlock at the national level, some analysts have questioned whether this effort could in fact exacerbate Iraq's internal conflicts by building a force that may act as yet another militia. Second, a number of Sunni tribal leaders have made clear that this cooperation with the United States is primarily motivated by their own short-term interest in making their communities safer and that they do not support a long-term U.S. military presence. So support and financing provided today could ultimately be used against U.S. troops if they remain in Iraq for an extended period of time—particularly since some of these tribal elements were at the core of an insurgency that has killed hundreds of U.S. troops in the previous four years.

NOW: What are the prospects for meaningful political reconciliation between the various factions in Iraq?

BK: The prospects for political reconciliation between the various factions in Iraq appear quite unlikely in the short-term. Today Iraq's leaders are debating many of the same issues over power sharing that they have been debating since 2004. Iraq has seen very little progress in the key effort to amend its constitution, and national reconciliation efforts, as well as de-Baathification, appears stalled. Two elections and a constitutional referendum in 2005 have resulted in a national government incapable of resolving some of the core issues that animate Iraq's struggles for power today—and the first eight months of this year saw major defections from Iraq's government. Unless there is some sort of emergency and extraordinary intervention in Iraq's political transition, it seems quite unlikely that political reconciliation will see any progress in Iraq.

NOW: How likely is it that mass killing or mass exodus would follow troop redeployment from Iraq?

BK: Iraq has already experienced mass killings and a mass exodus, even with a continuous presence of more than 130,000 U.S. troops during the past three years. Iraq's conflict has resulted in tens of thousands of Iraqis killed. More than 4 million Iraqis have been pushed out of their homes, and the International Organization for Migration reported that the number of internally displaced Iraqis doubled since the start of the surge.

Whether redeployment from Iraq will result in increased killings and displacements depends on three key factors—the intensity of diplomatic efforts to get Iraq's leaders to settle their internal disputes, whether a stronger effort is made to reach out to Iraq's neighbors, and the pace of the eventual U.S. troop redeployment. Much of the conflict and displacements in Iraq are tied to a power grab and vicious score-settling between different sectarian and ethnic groups. If the international community helps Iraq's leaders settle their internal power-sharing disputes, it could dampen the conflict. Because Iraq's neighbors have a direct interest in the outcome of this, a sustainable peace settlement requires the active involvement of Iraq's neighbors.

NOW: Refugee groups estimate that, since the surge began in February 2007, the number of Iraqis displaced has doubled. Will the numbers of internally displaced people and refugees continue to rise?

BK: Again, this in large part depends on what Iraq's leaders and Iraqis decide to do—nearly all of the displacements are directly related to Iraq's internal conflicts for power—whether it is Shi'a versus Sunni in the central part of the country or Arab versus Kurd in the north—and settling these conflicts peacefully is the best way to put an end to the displacements.

NOW: How will control of oil resources/revenues influence Iraq's future?

BK: Iraq's considerable oil and gas resources give it advantages that other countries like Afghanistan do not have—but until Iraq's internal conflicts are settled peacefully, it will not be able to take advantage of these resources and revenues to improve the quality of life for its people. According to recent reports, Iraq's oil industry will require billions of dollars of investment to enhance its production capacity, but this investment is not likely to materialize until the internal conflicts are settled.

NOW: What are the chances that Baghdad can hold on to (or restore) its multiethnic, pluralistic character?

Soldier in Iraq BK: The chances look increasingly slim that Baghdad overall will be multiethnic and pluralistic in the near-term future without a peaceful settlement to the country's conflicts. According to a recent report from Nancy Youssef and Leila Fadel at McClatchy Newspapers, U.S. officials estimate that Baghdad, previously a 65 percent Sunni majority city, is now 75 percent Shi'a. Even with tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Baghdad, militias, sometimes working in cooperation with Iraqi security forces, have quietly cleansed mixed neighborhoods of the city. Until a peaceful settlement is achieved in Iraq, there is little prospect for a reversal of these trends.

NOW: What actions by the United States and international community could improve peace and security in Iraq?

BK: The most immediate priority should be to call an extraordinary emergency constitutional convention—in a sense, a peace conference—with the inclusive participation of the leading Iraqi factions. This convention should have the support and involvement of Iraq's neighbors. The process of setting this up will take considerable time given the complex clash of interests, but simply continuing with an open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq without a fundamental shift in the diplomatic approach will not likely result in sustainable security for Iraq and the region.

NOW: How will the war in Iraq affect the United States' efforts over the next few years to fight terrorism?

BK: If the United States implements a fundamental shift in strategy and focuses its efforts on working with other global powers and Iraq's neighbors for diplomatic solutions to Iraq's internal conflicts, then it will be able to dedicate more resources and attention to addressing the global terror networks that continue to pose a threat to the United States in other places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. U.S. intelligence experts estimate that foreign fighters in Iraq affiliated with the global Al Qaeda movement are the cause of only a small fraction of Iraq's violence—most of Iraq's violence is a vicious struggle for power between Iraqis. A phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq would ultimately eliminate a rallying cry and recruitment tool for global terror groups.

NOW: What do you expect to happen to troop levels if a Republican or Democrat wins the presidency in 2008?

BK: Both a Democratic and Republican president would likely move to decrease troop levels in Iraq in large part because of the deep unpopularity of the war in the United States. Support for the war in Iraq hit its high point in December 2003 with the capture of Saddam Hussein, and since then has seen a steady and quite possibly inexorable decline.

NOW: What will happen in Iraq if the United States attacks Iran?

BK: If the United States attacks Iran with more than 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, U.S. forces in Iraq are likely to experience increased levels of attacks, particularly from Shi'a militias that get backing and support from Iran. U.S. commanders currently estimate that three quarters of the attacks against U.S. troops in Baghdad are committed by Shi'a elements, and military action against Iran is likely to provoke a reaction from Shi'a militias in Iraq that receive support from Iran.