Iraqis depend on American voters

President George W. Bush's rhetoric about the troop search has done little to solve problems in Iraq.

Alex Essington

About mid-June of 2007, big-name bloggers remarked how the mainstream press had bought into the Bush administration’s propaganda referring to enemies in Iraq as “al-Qaida,” regardless of any false connection to Osama bin Laden or Sept. 11. Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com noted, “But what is not inevitable is to adopt the patently misleading nomenclature and political rhetoric of the administration, so plainly designed to generate support for the ‘surge’ by creating the false appearance that the violence in Iraq is due to attacks by the terrorist group responsible for 9/11.”

However, once “al-Qaida” became part of the mainstream media’s Iraq coverage, ABC News and others were free to conclude that the terrorist network had grown stronger during Bush’s tenure. By the administration’s own word count, Iraq was a strategic folly in the War on Terror.

Of course none of this mattered to ordinary Iraqis trying to get on with their lives. Whatever we call them, the groups blowing up hospitals and power supplies, dumping beheaded corpses on street sides, and otherwise engaging in al-Qaida-like behavior repelled Iraqis. By 2008, an estimated 4.5 million Iraqis sought refuge from the violence – either inside or outside of Iraq. Saad al-Haidari, now living in Egypt, told the IRIN news agency, “If I go back, I will be killed. I have been threatened with murder. There is a 90 percent chance that I won’t even get to my house.”

In order to hold the security gains won by the Sunni Awakening, Operation Phantom Phoenix (only three weeks old) will have to produce jobs for young Iraqi men, including the 75 percent of Concerned Local Citizens who do not qualify for full-time positions with the Iraqi security forces. Col. Wayne Grigsby, Jr. summed up a key lesson learned during the surge: “We have to increase the employment rate because idle hands will attract insurgents,” adding, “We’ve known all along that the CLCs were a temporary expedient.”

Before the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force expires in December, the Iraqi security forces are slated to assume primary responsibility for nine Iraqi provinces (the other nine are currently under Iraqi Army control). A crucial component of Operation Phantom Phoenix, the success of the scale-down to presurge troop levels and corresponding handover of power will suggest to American voters a timeline for responsible withdrawal from Iraq. Given the disparate strategies offered by the two parties, combined with the physical limitations of continuing military operations, this election will seal the future for Iraqis. For those concerned about the well-being of their families, the stakes could not be higher.

Asked recently whether he opposes a timeline for complete withdrawal by the end of 2009, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, No. 2 commander in Iraq, answered, “The timeline depends on many factors … the threat, the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, the governance capacity that’s established. And based on that, we’ll make recommendations,” adding, “I see us making progress. I see us being able to get down to 15 brigades by the summer. If conditions continue along the way they are, then I think we’ll set the conditions for further reductions.”

There are a number of potentially confounding variables to economic and political progress, however. Among them: a Dec. 24 Memorandum of Understanding between the two large Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP) and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party led by Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi. An “unpublished” portion of the MoU is rumored to stipulate two-thirds future administrative control over ethnically mixed Mosul for the Kurds. If true, Sunni groups in Ninawa, currently split over support for al-Qaida, are likely to unite in opposition to the vice president – defeating Phantom Phoenix efforts to corner and squash al-Qaida in northern Iraq. Additionally, a parliamentary alliance between Sunnis and Kurds would unseat the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and force the creation of a new coalition government. Such a move could stimulate political reconciliation and accelerate a timeline for responsible withdrawal; it could also be preclude a new era of violence should Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr respond by ordering an end to the Mahdi Army ceasefire, possibly emboldening Iranian-backed surrogates to fill any power voids caused by the religious and political reshuffling within the Shiite bloc. If the Mosul stipulation rumor is false, however, the MoU could welcome the Sunni bloc to a seat in the ruling four-party alliance – a promising indication of sustainable national compromises to follow.

On the economic front, one of the keys to keeping young Iraqi men busy in 2008 will be the success of programs like the Iraqi Civilian Conservation Force. Modeled after the Depression-era effort to put unemployed Americans to work clearing rubble, building roads and fixing infrastructure, ICCF also provides scholarships for CLC’s to attend vocational schools, as well as grants and microloans for entrepreneurs. Another key will be giving more former Baathists jobs and pensions following recent revisions to the de-Baathification law. According to Grigsby, “In this culture, providing for one’s family is a grave matter of honor.”

If unemployment maintains a downward trend over the next 10 months, Iraqi self-reliance may be best honored by pursuing a policy of withdrawal. If the economy suffers from a deteriorating security situation, a renewed military commitment may be warranted – like the one Sen. John McCain has championed for years – in order to secure an environment friendly to employers.

In the short-term, troop redeployments will proceed according to General Petraeus’ recommendations. But he and other top military commanders understand the consequences of Nov. 4 for Iraq. Odierno has said, “Obviously, it’s a policy decision how long we stay here.” American voters are responsible for making sure it’s a sound one.

Alex Essington welcomes comments at [email protected]