Baghdad, Iraq — It was easy to be skeptical when Brig. Gen. Raheem, a Shia police chief in Baghdad, declared that his district was welcoming back Sunnis driven from their homes during the previous sectarian strife. Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq was supposedly nonexistent. When I pointed out to the general that it seemed easier to maintain security in one-sect districts, he dismissed the suggestion. If the original residents again lived in the neighborhood, he explained, they could identify any strangers and terrorists entering the area.
Critics have sought to minimize Iraq’s dramatic improvement in security, saying that it has failed to produce political accommodation among the country’s sects. These pundits would benefit from talking to Raheem: Security is not divorced from politics in counterinsurgency. The success of Coalition forces in protecting the people is laying the foundation for political progress.
When the government cannot provide security, people look elsewhere for help, often falling back on ethnic, sectarian, or tribal loyalties. From the chaos emerge militants, who offer protection to vulnerable communities and exploit them in return. Since these armed groups depend on violence for power, they have no incentive to reach a peaceful solution. This dynamic helps explain the success of the new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Securing the people breaks this cycle of violence, permitting political movement.
The strategy is working. U.S. and Iraqi forces have a round-the-clock presence in towns and cities, reducing support for militants. As a result, the public could reject the Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Shiite Mahdi Army, which brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2006.
Reconciliation among ordinary Iraqis is occurring. An ABC News poll in March found that 92 percent of Iraqis felt that forced separation was bad for Iraq. Even though Baathist Sunnis ruled over the majority Shia population under Saddam, 63 percent of Shias favored government jobs for former mid- to low-level Baathists. Moreover, 89 percent of all Iraqis supported Sunni participation in elections.
Visiting mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad that saw some of the worst violence, one is struck by a resurgent wave of Iraqi nationalism. People are again identifying themselves as Iraqis, not as members of sects. Shias welcomed a mainly Sunni Iraqi army brigade when it arrived in Basra to drive out the Mahdi army. With increasingly mixed Iraqi Security Forces, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and Shias now put their lives in each others’ hands during operations.
It is important not to exaggerate the significance of this grassroots reconciliation. Saddam’s rule played on ethnic and sectarian identities for decades, and the recent strife reinforced his legacy. As the ABC News poll also revealed, Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds have different views on how their lives are going. At the same time, it is critical not to dismiss the improved relations among ordinary Iraqis.
Today, the main issue is whether political accommodation can occur at the national level. The Iraqi government is finally taking action. Earlier this year, the parliament passed legislation aimed at addressing Sunni grievances concerning de-Baathification reform, amnesty for detainees, and provincial powers. The parliament has still not passed a law to distribute oil proceeds, but at least de facto revenue sharing is taking place. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken on both Sunni and Shia extremists, improving the government’s legitimacy.
Nevertheless, failure to make critical reforms could plunge Iraq back into chaos. Provincial elections, which were supposed to restore more power to Sunnis, were delayed, possibly to early 2009. The Maliki government’s slow integration of former Sunni insurgents into the ISF is preventing them from having a stake in the new Iraqi state. There are also signs that ruling parties are blocking nonviolent elements of the Mahdi army from participating in politics.
Due to this complicated picture, it is too early to say if the increased security will produce lasting political accommodation and stability. But the answer to this question will likely become apparent in the next year, as the Iraqi government reveals whether it will improve ISF integration and conduct fair provincial elections. If these events do not happen, those shut out of power might resort to violence.
However, unless this occurs, the present focus on security should not be altered. It has laid the groundwork for political progress. No other strategy, including the 2006 approach of withdrawing U.S. troops regardless of conditions in Iraq, has advanced either grassroots or national accommodation.
– Erik Swabb served in Anbar, Iraq, as a Marine infantry officer from September 2004 to March 2005. He is a member of Veterans for Freedom.