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Despite Security Improvements, Iraq Remains 'Very Troubled Country'

Interviewee: Kenneth M. Pollack, Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 10, 2008

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Kenneth M. Pollack, an Iraq expert from the Brookings Institution, says he is concerned that the U.S. public and political establishment "increasingly feels that Iraq is heading toward victory" even though "Iraq still is a very troubled country." He fears that the reduction in U.S. influence as a result of the new U.S. security agreement in Iraq could make it difficult to  "push back on the Iraqi politicians who will try as hard as they can to subvert the system for their own narrow interests."

With the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement now approved, it seems to me that the U.S. public has generally come to the conclusion that the Iraq war is ending well for the United States and that American troops will be home in a couple of years. Is that too glib a summation? Are there problems still ahead?

I certainly agree that that is the American perspective. I see it in the polls also, and I hear it anecdotally. But I am very concerned that is an oversimplification of the situation in Iraq and in fact we are missing very real problems that remain in Iraq. We have certainly made a tremendous amount of progress there; there's no question that security is orders of magnitude better than it was in 2005 and 2006. As a result of that you are seeing very significant changes in Iraqi politics and also the beginning of a revival of Iraq's economy.

But what we're missing, unfortunately, is that Iraq is not a stable state yet. There are dozens of problems remaining out there that could push Iraq into civil war or into some other very unstable situation. My fear is that because the American public and the political establishment increasingly feels that Iraq is heading toward victory--Republicans are saying that triumphantly and Democrats are saying that grudgingly--we're going to lose sight of the fact that Iraq still is a very troubled country, that we have not succeeded there, that the situation could still go south very quickly. We  have to keep focused on Iraq because despite everything else on the Middle East agenda, we can't allow Iraq to fall back into chaos and civil war.

Let's start with some of these political problems. Obviously the main one is whether the Sunnis and the Shiites can cooperate enough to get a functioning government. What's the situation there?

The differences between Sunni and Shiites are certainly very significant but I don't know if that's even the most important of Iraq's political problems.

What is?

In many ways the biggest problem out there is the immaturity of Iraq's political system and the struggle for power that's taking place. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, is increasingly centralizing power in his own hands. No one knows what his motives are. There are people who believe that he deliberately intends to make himself a dictator. There are others who believe that that's not necessarily his intention, but nevertheless that his actions are pushing him in that direction anyway. That's a very dangerous situation, because the truth is that Maliki doesn't have what it takes to make himself a dictator. And even if he puts himself in power for some brief period of time, you need to remember that dictatorships in Iraq are not stable. The only dictator who was able to control Iraq for a long period of time was Saddam Hussein, and it took genocidal levels of violence to keep himself  in power for those thirty years. Every other dictator was out in four or five years.

Beyond that, you've got now a very strong military that is feeling increasingly self-confident, that looks around and doesn't see other political institutions that are as strong or as capable as it is. That's the kind of a situation which in previous years in the Middle East, including in Iraq, has led to military coups. That would not be good because Iraq's army is not yet cohesive enough to pull off something like that. Chances are if it tried, or if some general tried, it would fragment, the way that Lebanon's army did during its civil war.

Now, when Maliki led this attack on the southern provinces around Basra last spring, it was theorized that he was trying to cement his own power by reducing the power of the Sadrists. Is that still the situation? Who are his main enemies right now?  If he's going to try to be a dictator, who's he going to try to push out of influence?

With the new Status of Forces Agreement, which limits our authority, and the fact that we've got a massive economic crisis at home, and a populace that increasingly wants to focus our resources on our own problems, we're going to have fewer resources devoted to Iraq and less authority there.

As always in the Middle East, and as always in Iraq, the situation is extremely complicated. Having pushed Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi forces out of southern Iraq, Maliki has actually turned around and is now allying with them. He is forging an alliance between his Dawa party and Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist movement, and that has the other big Shiite party, ISCI, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, very frightened, and it is pushing ISCI into alliance with the Kurds. Both factions are competing for influence among the Shiite tribes and both of them are now trying to figure out how to handle the Sunnis. So you've got a very, very fluid situation. This is another element of instability in Iraq because ISCI controls one of the larger militias, the Badr Brigade, and many of its personnel have already been integrated into Iraq's armed forces. So there are real concerns in many people's minds that if Maliki and Sadr really try to push out ISCI, its militiamen in the army will desert or will use their positions to try to subvert the responsiveness of the Iraqi armed forces to the prime minister.

Are either of these two contentious Shiite groups trying to make significant deals with the Sunnis or are they trying to ignore the Sunnis?

At the moment, you've seen some very tentative moves between, in particular, ISCI and the Sunnis, but the Sunnis haven't yet really sorted things out for themselves. The Sunnis of course boycotted the 2005 elections, and the three parties in parliament that nominally represent them don't really represent what the Sunnis want, and most Sunnis don't see them as being their parties. You have the Awakening Councils, in Anbar, in Baghdad, and elsewhere in Iraq, who represent much of the Sunni rural population who are now trying to organize themselves as their own political parties. But what they're finding out is, they're tribes, they're not political operatives, and they don't really know how to organize political parties, so they're having difficulty. And some of them are actually breaking away to join with some of these established parties, which heretofore had been considered completely illegitimate. So you've got a weird sorting out of the politics on the Sunni side, and until that is resolved it's going to be hard for any of the Shiite groups to figure out exactly whom they should align with or against.

Has Maliki kept his promise to integrate the U.S.-supported Sons of Iraq [local Sunni security militias] into the army and police forces?

It's been a very slow process, and so far they have done what they've been asked to do. They agreed to take over control of the Sons of Iraq, they agreed to pay the Sons of Iraq, and what's more they even agreed to pay the Sons of Iraq at what the coalition was paying them. It's worth pointing out that what the coalition was paying them, anywhere from about $140 to $300 a month, is actually quite a bit more than what members of the government security services typically get, and that was a bone of contention. You had many in the government protesting, "How can you ask us to pay the Sons of Iraq, who, let's face it, are former terrorists, who were just shooting at us, how can you ask us to pay them more than the loyal soldiers and policemen who were fighting for Iraq and fighting against the terrorists?" The United States basically stepped in and said, "Look, you have to do this because this is what's going to preserve peace and security in Iraq."After some griping, they agreed to do it. So far, those are positive signs, but I don't think that anyone should assume the government is doing this out of the goodness of its heart or some sense of what's best for Iraq.The Iraqi government is still largely comprised of venal, chauvinist people. The most important element in convincing them to do what they need to do has been the United States' presence.

What should the United States be doing now in Iraq? The United States still has a substantial armed force in Iraq. Should it be monitoring the politics very closely?

My fear is that … we're going to lose sight of the fact that Iraq still is a very troubled country, that we have not succeeded there, that the situation could still go south very quickly.

Absolutely. The next year or eighteen months is going to be absolutely critical for the development of Iraqi politics. That is where the United States has to put its focus. It has got to recognize that the development of Iraq's government is going to be critical to whether or not we are able to leave a stable, secure Iraq, one that does not descend back into civil war. That's going to be hard. The challenge, of course, is that with the new Status of Forces Agreement, which limits our authority, and the fact that we've got a massive economic crisis at home, and a populace that increasingly wants to focus our resources on our own problems, we're going to have fewer resources devoted to Iraq and less authority there.

And President-elect Obama has said he wants to move troops much more quickly into Afghanistan.

Right, although what he said is basically ten thousand more troops; that shouldn't break the bank in Iraq. We honestly don't know what he's going to do on the drawdown in Iraq, but if you look at the national security team he's pulling together, with General James Jones, who will be national security adviser, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Senator Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state designate, that is not a team that you would expect to be running pell-mell for the exits in Iraq. They're going to also want a very responsible drawdown from Iraq, one that allows us to withdraw our combat forces without jeopardizing the gains that we've made in Iraq. I'm pretty confident on that.

The bigger issue is whether we are willing and able to really keep an eye on the Iraqis and to push back when necessary against venal Iraqi politicians. That in many ways is kind of the great paradox for Iraq, that at this moment when the United States is having its influence and its resources in Iraq decline, we are now emerging as the most important factor in Iraq that is looking toward Iraq's long-term good and what is in the best interest of the Iraqi people. And we certainly have the opportunity to leave a much better Iraq than what we found when we went in there in 2003, or even what we thought was possible in the worst days of 2006. But it is going to require us to keep thinking about what is in Iraq's best long-term interest and push back on the Iraqi politicians who will try as hard as they can to subvert the system for their own narrow interests.

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