Politics & Policy

A Word From Businessmen

A measured look at Iraq.

It behooves those (of us) who hear and pass along dire news from Iraq to pause from time to time when something more measured comes along. This today is from a group called Business Executives for National Security (BENS). The group has traveled to Iraq three times in 18 months, intending an uninflated look at what is going on there. The group is free of ideology, though it is reasonable to assume that the principles of free markets, private property, and rule of law dominate their thought. But they appear to be without bias of an inflammatory kind, and their patriotism would not appear to outweigh their judgment.

Here is what they have now reported at the conclusion of their third trip: There are four insurgent groupings at work. The first of these is self-servingly ideological. It is the group that lost power with Saddam’s deposition. They wish for a restoration of sorts. Democracy is the enemy, and they will fight any occupying power, like our own, that might advance self-government.

A second broader group–from which the first group largely is drawn–is identified as Sunni Arab rejectionists. This is the ethnic/religious group that under Saddam ruled Iraq–and despoiled it. These Sunni rejectionists are up against the majority Shiites. They are not intrinsically totalitarian, but they feel threatened by the predominance of the Shiites. They have now become, in the language of the BENS, “POIs”–pissed-off Iraqis. They are affected by the breakdown of services, like electricity, the loss of economic favors they once enjoyed, and the prevailing chaos in the country. What they want is the reestablishment of an order in which they would play the principal role.

There is then a third group: the jihadists, or religious fanatics. They want the restoration of the ancient caliphate. Their principal agents–the suicide bombers–are mostly not native Iraqis. They come in from Syria, and though they do not have the backing of any substantial number of Iraqis, they have the influence generated by the audacity and critical impact of their feats.

A fourth element is, quite simply, a criminal class. Eighty thousand criminals were released from prison by Saddam just before his regime was toppled. These are abroad in the land and practicing their profession and contributing to the disruptions from which they profiteer.

What is clearly needed is a modus vivendi between such Shiites and Sunnis as seek peace and order. The Shiites outnumber the Sunnis but desperately need the Sunnis to make common cause against the insurgents. These rely on vehicle bombs and on so-called IEDs–improvised explosive devices. Of the vehicle bombs, 35 percent, it is estimated, are driven by people with suicide designs. It requires a mere six days to transport a suicide bomber and his vehicle down the Euphrates River Valley into Iraq ready for work.

As for the other principal menace, as many as a hundred IEDs exploded in Baghdad alone in a single week. Over one-half of these are located only after they have done their dirty work. General Abizaid, the U.S. commander, has called for the equivalent of a Manhattan Project to address that problem. Efforts are being made to come up with techniques of detection and immobilization, but it is felt that the awful lag time is not sufficiently diminishing. “Inability to reverse effectiveness of this weapon not only costs us casualties, it has a significant effect on support for the war at home.” The committee of businessmen pronounce as encouraging the development of the Iraqi forces, which now include 115 combat battalions and an air force with four operational squadrons.

But the important work ahead is not military but political: the firming up of the civil institutions that will isolate the insurgents and their firepower. The insurgents reduce by 500,000 barrels a day (that’s about $29 million per day) the revenue that would otherwise flow to burgeoning institutional resistance.

What is required is the kind of assurance that is generated by the morale of the military. We learn that the U.S. reenlistment rate is substantially above the goal. What would destroy that morale is any sense that the American government will not stay the course. The operative assumption is that the U.S. can be relied on until the elections of 2008. The challenge is to restore order in Iraq and to maintain order in the United States.

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