In Iraq, All Ter­ri­bly Familiar

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Chuck Hagel

Last week­end, along with Rep. Joe Ses­tak (D-Pa.), I com­pleted my fifth trip to Iraq, and I am frus­trated and wor­ried. We are still risk­ing the lives of our troops with­out giv­ing them a re­al­is­tic pol­icy wor­thy of their sac­ri­fices. To me, as a Viet­nam vet­eran, that feels ter­ri­bly familiar.

If suc­cess were sim­ply a mat­ter of the de­ter­mi­na­tion and abil­ity of U.S. troops and civil ser­vants, we would have al­ready cre­ated a se­cure and stable Iraq. But un­for­tu­nately, the re­al­ity is that af­ter more than four years, Amer­ica re­mains the coun­try’s oc­cu­py­ing power. Iraq’s fu­ture will be de­ter­mined by Iraqis, who, I hope, will reach a po­lit­i­cal ac­com­mo­da­tion — but Amer­ica is still mak­ing the ma­jor de­ci­sions and tak­ing the lead mil­i­tar­ily in most crit­i­cal ar­eas of the coun­try. We can con­tinue to help buy time for the Iraqi gov­ern­ment — but that time is run­ning out.

The signs are ev­ery­where. Key Shi­ite lead­ers told me that they re­main deeply skep­ti­cal of Sunni in­ten­tions. They de­rided as “ap­pease­ment” con­struc­tive at­tempts to rein­te­grate se­lect ex-Baath Party of­fi­cials into pub­lic life and the gov­ern­ment. Shi­ite and Kur­dish lead­ers openly sug­gested that Iraq sim­ply pur­sue what’s known as “the 80/20 so­lu­tion” — mean­ing that the Kurds and Shi­ites, who make up some 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, would run the coun­try with­out re­gard for the mi­nor­ity Sun­nis, who had grown ac­cus­tomed to

dom­i­nat­ing Iraq. Al­most no one in Bagh­dad was talk­ing about us­ing new pro­vin­cial elec­tions this year to help bring the Sun­nis into the na­tional gov­ern­ment. The gov­er­nor of An­bar prov­ince, al-Qaeda’s base in Iraq, agreed that se­cu­rity had im­proved re­cently but raised con­cerns that his prov­ince still gets al­most no as­sis­tance from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. That has left cit­i­zens in his prov­ince with­out jobs, elec­tric­ity and potable wa­ter, even as open sew­ers spill filth into the streets.

There are im­por­tant ar­eas of progress in Iraq, and we should rec­og­nize them. In An­bar prov­ince, for ex­am­ple, U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers high­lighted the sig­nif­i­cant suc­cess they have had in low­er­ing the num­ber of at­tacks by al-Qaeda. The mil­i­tary has suc­cess­fully en­gaged tribal lead­ers who have pro­vided in­for­mal gov­er­nance there for hun­dreds of years. The U.S. mil­i­tary has also suc­ceeded in help­ing dou­ble the size of the Iraqi forces in the prov­ince. Whether this progress can be sus­tained or is tem­po­rary will be up to the Iraqis.

If the good news is mixed, the bad news is down­right trou­bling. Within the past two weeks, hun­dreds of Iraqis were slaugh­tered in Bagh­dad, the Iraqi Par­lia­ment’s cafe­te­ria was hit by a sui­cide bomber, and a his­toric Bagh­dad bridge over the Tigris River was de­stroyed. Omi­nously, th­ese in­creased acts of vi­o­lence oc­curred in the area where the United States and Iraq have de­ployed 80,000 se­cu­rity forces. So what do we do? We must start by un­der­stand­ing what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing in Iraq. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Intelligence Es­ti­mate re­leased in Fe­bru­ary, the con­flict has be­come a “self-sus­tain­ing in­ter-sec­tar­ian strug­gle be­tween Shia and Sun­nis” and also in­cludes “ex­ten­sive Shia-on-Shia vi­o­lence.” This means that Iraq is be­ing con­sumed by sec­tar­ian war­fare, much of it driven by Shi­ite or Sunni mili­tias — not al-Qaeda ter­ror­ists. Yes, there are ad­mir­ers of Osama bin Laden in the coun­try, in­clud­ing a full-blown al-Qaeda branch. But ter­ror­ists are not the core prob­lem; Sunni-Shi­ite vi­o­lence is. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rhetoric has not been nearly clear enough on this key point.

Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion can­not stop a civil war in Iraq. Our mil­i­tary, su­perb as it is, can only do so much. The only last­ing an­swer to Iraq’s an­guish will come from a po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion. There will be no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion in Iraq.

So how can Amer­ica in­flu­ence the Iraqis to rec­on­cile their dif­fer­ences — at least enough to form some kind of re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment? First, we must rec­og­nize that we have few good op­tions in Iraq and that we are deal­ing with dy­nam­ics that lie mostly be­yond our con­trol.

Sec­ond, we must do all we can to en­cour­age a com­pre­hen­sive re­gional se­cu­rity frame­work, which in­cludes en­gag­ing Syria and Iran. The re­gional se­cu­rity con­fer­ence next month in Egypt is an op­por­tu­nity we must not miss. We can­not solve the prob­lems in Iraq by our­selves. We will have to work more closely with our Mid­dle East al­lies than ever be­fore, and that means ad­dress­ing the nearly uni­ver­sal per­cep­tion in the Mid­dle East that we are im­pos­ing our will on the re­gion for our own pur­poses.

To get more help from our re­gional friends, we must also have Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries see the Iraqi gov­ern­ment as cred­i­ble, not a U.S. pup­pet. And to get our re­gional strat­egy right, we must clearly rec­og­nize the depth of the Sunni-Shi­ite split and fac­tor it into our Mid­dle East pol­icy and re­la­tion­ships. If we do not, the re­gion could ex­plode into eth­nic and re­li­gious con­flict.

Third, and closer to home, the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress must un­tan­gle them­selves from the de­bate over fund­ing our con­tin­ued in­volve­ment in Iraq. The Iraqis must be jolted into un­der­stand­ing that Amer­ica’s con­tin­ued com­mit­ment of troops and money is not open-ended. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Amer­i­can lead­ers in Iraq told me that they be­lieved the de­bate on this is­sue in Congress had ac­tu­ally helped them get Iraqi lead­ers to grasp this point.

I do not like re­strict­ing our war pol­icy with con­di­tions or time­lines. They are blunt in­stru­ments in an area of pol­icy that re­quires flex­i­bil­ity. But they are some of the few lev­ers Congress has when the ma­jor­ity of Congress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple have lost con­fi­dence in the pres­i­dent’s pol­icy.

We are at a cross­roads at home. One op­tion is that Congress can pass and the pres­i­dent can sign a war­fund­ing bill that gives our troops the re­sources they need and places re­spon­si­ble con­di­tions on that fund­ing that will press the Iraqi gov­ern­ment to per­form and make the tough choices. Pres­i­dent Bush should not see this as a threat from Congress but as a rea­son­able pro­gres­sion of events af­ter four bloody and costly years.

The other op­tion is that the pres­i­dent can veto the fund­ing bill, Congress can over­play its hand, and both sides can get locked into a po­lit­i­cal stand­off — with U.S. troops caught in the mid­dle. This would not pro­duce con­struc­tive pres­sure on the Iraqi gov­ern­ment to rec­on­cile its dif­fer­ences, and it would en­sure that the United States would re­main trapped in Iraq, do­ing ever-greater dam­age to our force struc­ture and mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The longer we are bogged down in Iraq, the more dif­fi­cult and painful it will be to get out. And the deeper we are bogged down in Iraq, the fewer re­sources we have to de­vote to the many other im­por­tant chal­lenges fac­ing Amer­ica, es­pe­cially in Afghanistan but also else­where around the globe and here at home.

If the war con­tin­ues to lose sup­port from the Amer­i­can peo­ple, the lim­ited op­tions we have to­day will van­ish. The pres­i­dent will be left with a bit­ter few al­lies in our party, and we will be forced to with­draw from Iraq in a way that greatly dam­ages U.S. in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East and leaves the world far more dan­ger­ous than it is to­day. Forg­ing a bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus now that places re­spon­si­ble con­di­tions on U.S. war fund­ing could fore­stall a time when we have no op­tions. The Baker-Hamil­ton re­port could have been the base for that bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus.

I came home from my fifth trip to Iraq with one en­dur­ing im­pres­sion. The Iraqi gov­ern­ment must make the tough choices now to pro­duce po­lit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. If there is no such rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Iraq, there will be no progress — no mat­ter how many Amer­i­can lives we lose and how much Amer­i­can money we give. We will have squan­dered our re­sources and ef­forts, un­der­mined our in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East and, how­ever un­in­ten­tion­ally, pro­duced a more dan­ger­ous world.


On the worst day of vi­o­lence in three months, a car bomb ex­ploded near the Sadriya mar­ket in Bagh­dad last week, killing about 120 peo­ple.

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