I will not minimize the enormity of the challenges faced by Iraqis, nor the complexity of the situation. Yet at the same time, I intend to demonstrate that it is possible for the United States to see its goals realized in Iraq and that Iraqis are capable of tackling and addressing the problems confronting them today. A secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is attainable.
Some of the more promising political developments at the national level are neither measured in benchmarks nor visible to those far from Baghdad. For instance, there is a budding debate about federalism among Iraq’s leaders and, importantly, within the Sunni community. Those living in places like al-Anbar and Salahaddin are beginning to realize how localities having more of a say in daily decision making will empower their communities. No longer is an all-powerful Baghdad seen as the panacea to Iraq’s problems. This thinking is nascent, but it is ultimately critical to the evolution of a common vision among all Iraqi leaders.
Similarly, there is a palpable frustration in Baghdad over the sectarian system that was used to divide the spoils of the state in the last few years. Leaders from all communities openly acknowledge that a focus on sectarian gains has led to poor governance and served Iraqis badly. And many claim to be ready to make the sacrifices that will be needed to put government performance ahead of sectarian and ethnic concerns. Such ideas are no longer controversial, although their application will be.
Finally, we are seeing Iraqis come to terms with complex issues not by first providing a national framework, but instead by tackling immediate problems. One such example is how the central government has accepted over 1700 young men from the Abu Ghurayb area west of Baghdad, including former members of insurgent groups, to be part of the Iraqi security forces. Another is how the government, without much public fanfare, has contacted thousands of members of the former Iraqi army, offering them retirement, return to the military, or public sector employment. So without the proclamation of a general amnesty, we see amnesty being granted, and de-baathification reform in advance of national legislation. In both instances, the seeds of reconciliation are being planted.
What is difficult about the oil laws is that they take Iraq another step down the road toward a federal system that all Iraqis have not yet embraced. But once again, we see that even in the absence of legislation there is practical action as the central government shares oil revenues through budget allocations on an equitable basis with Iraq’s provinces.
In short, we should not be surprised or dismayed that Iraqis have not fully resolved such issues. Rather, we should ask whether the way in which they are approaching such issues gives us a sense of their seriousness and ultimate capability to resolve Iraq’s fundamental problems. Is the collective national leadership of Iraq ready to prioritize Iraq over sectarian and community interests? Can and will they come to agreement about what sort of Iraq they want?
I do believe that Iraq’s leaders have the will to tackle the country’s pressing problems, although it will take longer than we originally anticipated because of the environment and the gravity of the issues before them.
At the provincial level, political gains have been more pronounced, particularly in the north and west of Iraq where the security improvements have been in some places dramatic. In these areas, there is abundant evidence that the security gains have opened the door for meaningful politics.
Shi’a extremists are also facing rejection. Recent attacks by elements of the Iranian backed Jaysh al Mahdi on worshipers in the holy city of Karbala have provoked a backlash and triggered a call by Muqtada as-Sadr for Jaysh al Mahdi to cease attacks against Iraqis and coalition forces.
The growing ability of the provinces to design and execute budgets and the readiness of the central government to resource them are success stories. On September 5, Iraq’s senior federal leadership traveled to al-Anbar where they announced a 70% increase in the 2007 provincial capital budget as well as $50 million to compensate losses in the fight against al-Qa’ida. The support of the central government is also needed to maintain hard-won security in areas like al-Anbar through the rapid expansion of locally-generated police. The Government of Iraq has placed some 21,000 Anbaris on police rolls.
2006 was a bad year in Iraq. The country came close to unraveling politically, economically, and in security terms. 2007 has brought improvement. Enormous challenges remain. Iraqis still struggle with fundamental questions about how to share power, accept their differences, and overcome their past. The changes to our strategy last January—the surge—have helped change the dynamics in Iraq for the better. Our increased presence made besieged communities feel that they could defeat al-Qa’ida by working with us. Our population security measures have made it much harder for terrorists to conduct attacks. We have given the Iraqis the time and space to reflect on what sort of country they want. Most Iraqis genuinely accept Iraq as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian society—it is the balance of power that has yet to be sorted out.