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Iraq: What's Next?

Are We at a Turning Point or Another Stalemate?

Jul. 30, 2008
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Is this it? Five-plus years after the United States’ invasion of Iraq and two years after Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold first called for a troop-withdrawal timetable, the U.S. may be shifting its military and diplomatic strategy in the Middle East.


While Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama has called for a 16-month troop-withdrawal timetable, an idea backed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Bush administration and Republican nominee Sen. John McCain are pushing back hard. McCain has derided Obama’s plan, claiming that the Democrat doesn’t really understand what’s “at stake.” President Bush has assented to some sort of vague “time horizon,” but that proposal hasn’t been taken seriously.Feingold says it’s about time that the country’s leadership had a serious discussion about how to get out of Iraq. The withdrawal process, he says, should have already begun since the American people have been “fed up with this war” for a long time.

“We could have been out of there a long time ago,” Feingold said in an exclusive interview with the Shepherd Express last week. “And in a much better position as a nation, both in terms of our economy and national security, if we had done this earlier.”

He argues that a phased withdrawal strategy is “just plain logical” even though his proposal was seen as unusual in 2006. Fast-forward two years and Feingold’s position is the consensus view.

“Now just about everyone’s on board, except for basically George Bush, Dick Cheney and John McCain,” Feingold says. “Even Maliki, who has resisted this even though the [Iraqi] parliament and people of Iraq have wanted it for a long time, is now saying this [is the best choice].”

An Enormous Footprint

Even though there’s been renewed discussion about withdrawing troops and developing a more holistic approach to solving the crisis in Iraq, one that relies less on the military and more on diplomacy, reliable intelligence and humanitarian aid, a withdrawal likely won’t happen quickly.

The U.S. has an enormous footprint in Iraq, including 144,000 troops, about as many private contractors, a Vatican-size embassy in Baghdad expected to cost more than $730 million, the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and a mind-boggling sum of materiel—more than 300,000 items, according to a 2005 estimate.

Lt. Col. Lenny Richoux, writing for Defense News in 2007, explained what a withdrawal might look like in real terms: “The vehicles would stretch from New York City to Denver. Watching them drive by at 30 miles per hour would take 75 days. Experts estimate the removal of all personnel and equipment could take as long as 20 months.”

The human cost of war also continues. More than 4,100 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq; more than 30,000 have been wounded; one-fifth of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; and a new report found that 22,000 veterans have called a suicide hotline.

And while candidates and pundits continue to debate the success of the surge and the wisdom of withdrawing troops, about 3,200 troops from Wisconsin will likely be sent into combat in 2009 (see sidebar: “Wisconsin’s Soldiers”).

The people of Iraq have also suffered since the U.S. invasion. An estimated 86,423 to 94,285 Iraqi civilians have died from the violence since 2003, although the real human toll is undoubtedly much higher. One in five Iraqis have been displaced, which equates to about 5 million people who now live in safer parts of Iraq or in neighboring countries.

Iraqi journalist Huda Ahmed, who visited the Institute of World Affairs at UW-Milwaukee in February, says that Iraqis have had enough of the occupation.

“They’re frustrated and traumatized,” Ahmed said during her talk at UWM. “Many people lost many of their beloveds. They cannot take it anymore.”

On Life Support

Rob Ricigliano, director of the Institute of World Affairs at UWM, has taught negotiating skills to Iraqi politicians, and he’s kept a close watch on what’s happening in Iraq. Ricigliano says we’re at a turning point, “but it’s not the turning point that people think we’re at.” We’re not on the verge of “winning” or “losing,” he says, because there’s nothing to “win” or “lose” in Iraq.

“Winning is having the Iraqis survive on their own, for themselves,” he says. Ricigliano likens the situation in Iraq to a person on total life support who is kept alive through artificial means. At some point the individual has to be transitioned off of the tubes, monitors and machines so that he or she can function independently again. If that transition isn’t made, Ricigliano explains, that person will always remain dependent on external life-support mechanisms.

“I think we’re either past or right at the point where if we don’t make a transition to Iraq function ing on its own, it’s going to lose its ability to do so,” he says. “It’s going to become a permanently failed state.”

Working on practical matters at the local level would be more productive than trying to sort out a terribly complex and ever-shifting political situation at the national level, Ricigliano argues. He says the U.S.’ centralized, top-down pacification strategy has been a mistake and that a more holistic approach must be embraced, one that includes building more civil institutions from the ground up. “A lot of times getting people to work together is much easier to do at that local level than it is at the national level,” Ricigliano says. “Trying to drive this thing by trying to get a national reconciliation that would then feed down to the local level is pretty much counter to how most processes work.”

Assessing the Surge

Republican nominee John McCain has generated a slew of headlines by claiming credit for the success of the 2007 troop surge in providing relative stability and calm in Iraq. But Ricigliano says other factors have been more critical in reducing violence in Iraq, including the 2006 Sunni Awakening in Al Anbar province, the weakening of the Muqtada al-Sadr-led Mahdi Army, and the diminished role of Iran in fueling the conflict.

He emphasizes that Iraq’s stability is fragile since any of these factors could be reversed easily. “That would rekindle the violence in a very short time,” Ricigliano says. Ahmed said that even the much-lauded Sunni Awakening has led to yet more insecurity for the Iraqi people. While Americans see the Sunni tribes’ break with Al-Qaeda as a success, since the U.S. is now paying these men to serve in the Iraqi Security Forces, Ahmed said the reality for Iraqis is much different. The security forces include Shiite militias that killed Sunnis in retaliation, making the situation more complicated and potentially more explosive.

“Now I will have Sunni militias integrated into the [security forces] and then they will come to revenge the Shias who killed them,” Ahmed said at UWM.

Staying the Course

But is staying indefinitely a feasible option? The military is already strained, and could lack the ability to deal with other conflicts around the globe. Returned combat veterans are struggling to rebuild their lives and health back at home. The $10 billion spent in Iraq each month could be invested in a weakening domestic econ omy. And who knows how much longer American and Iraqi people will tolerate a prolonged presence in Iraq.

“The reality in Iraq is that this is considered an occu pation by a foreign power,” Feingold says. “That’s what it is. And no matter what country welcomes help at some point to deal with a problem, nobody wants that occupying power to stay forever or for a very long period of time. So the resentment has always been there. And the danger is that if we don’t indicate a clear intention of when we’re going to leave, so the people can look at that, that resentment will grow again and cause serious problems.”

Ahmed says that even though the U.S. forces are providing some stability in a volatile situation, Iraqis are too patriotic to tolerate a foreign occupation indefinitely. “If you stay longer we’re going to have more violence, more battles,” Ahmed says.

Ricigliano says a prolonged presence would create the conditions that would compel the U.S. to stay indefinitely. These conditions include an ineffective parliament, lack of reconciliation among the political parties and a dearth of civil institutions that could function on their own. The occupation would merely breed more dysfunction and dependency.

“People will adjust to the political reality of how you gain power and use power in an occupation, instead of adjusting to a new status quo that will be created when the transition is completed,” Ricigliano warns.

Ahmed says Iraqi leaders have to focus on what’s best for their country, not their political parties or allies. “We want people to work for Iraq,” Ahmed says. “Politicians working for Iraq, not work ing for their sects.”

Ahmed had advice for policymakers who will decide the course in Iraq. “Maybe you can help us find political and diplomatic solutions,” Ahmed says. “No excessive force anymore. Too many civilians have gotten killed. So please, if you want to work with us, listen to the Iraqis. Don’t listen to the Iraqis in the Green Zone. Listen to the Iraqis outside of the Green Zone.”

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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