The year closes on Iraq with a substantial reduction in the convulsive violence that has wreaked havoc on the country, its people, and many of America's own. As summer turned to autumn, the monthly death figures for both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians were nearly cut in half—rates that have encouragingly continued to fall. But U.S. military commanders, though heartened, are not in celebration mode. There is little talk now of reaching turning points in a place where progress can be so fleeting. They will eat a holiday meal in the mess hall and then continue to wrestle with the hard realities on the ground.
That grappling involves plenty of questions that go to the heart of the elusive nature of war itself—and of this war in particular. The explanations for recent trends will take time, they say, to flesh out. Is the surge working, or is it "dumb luck," one colonel wondered aloud recently. The answer from both military analysts and soldiers on the ground tends to be, a little bit of both. "The bottom line is that the situation on the ground has appeared to change dramatically and for the better," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a West Point professor and military adviser who regularly visits Iraq. "That's not arguable. The only question is why—and to what extent is it sustainable?"
And as the surge ebbs next year, as it must because of the ferocious toll two wars have taken on the U.S. military, the questions will keep coming. Are Shiite militia leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr beginning to realize that they would do better to put aside street battles to gain more influence, or are they
at the helm of fractured forces saving their ammunition for a civil war they still believe lies in the future? And what will happen as Iraqi refugees arrive home in greater numbers, having exhausted their life savings: Will they opt for revenge or resignation as they return to houses that may have been burned to the ground or taken over by occupants unwilling to move? And how soon can they get jobs in an economy with new oil wealth but a government struggling to cobble together reconstruction projects for its people?
Here are five broad issues that U.S. military commanders are watching to help them gauge how things are going in Iraq and what comes next:
1. Troop reductions
While some 30,000 soldiers start to return home as the surge comes to an end in the months ahead, Pentagon officials will be holding their collective breath as they see what this means for the remaining American soldiers on the ground—and the Iraqi civilians they are there to protect. That will be measured in large part by whether the positive security trends continue and, just as important, whether Iraqi security forces are able to step up as they are needed. Military officials will be keeping a close eye on "enemy forces—how many attacks they make, how much capability they have remaining—and the progress of the Iraqi security forces in keeping them under control," says a senior military official in Baghdad.
That last part is pivotal: U.S. officials cite improvements by the Iraqi military—both in operations and in gaining the trust of the Iraqi public—although its ability to operate without the help of U.S. soldiers remains unclear. One challenge is logistics; in particular, how well Iraqi security forces can feed, supply, and move their soldiers. It's not a sexy topic, but the top brass in Baghdad consistently cite it as one of the biggest factors in whether Iraqi security forces can stand on their own. Many of those logistical hurdles may have less to do with capability—Iraq managed to sustain a long war with Iran—than with sectarian mistrust, which can cause the ministries to withhold supplies from their own security forces.
And the Iraqi police are a major problem. They are still seen in many neighborhoods as sectarian thugs, and it doesn't help, officials say, that within the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police, occasional shootings still take place within the building's halls.
2. Government action
Infighting and factional strife lie at the heart of the government's long-term ability to provide for its citizens. With stability come expectations, and U.S. officials know Iraqis will judge their government by its ability to meet their basic needs. Beyond the most fundamental and elusive one, security, those include, most urgently, jobs and services like sewage control, gasoline supplies, healthcare, and electricity.
The government has seen rising oil prices increase its revenues, and it has committed nearly one third of its budget to reconstruction projects. But U.S. officials complain that the government spending has been slow, and, says one senior military official in Baghdad, "the capacity to actually get what it pays for is limited."
Corruption is rampant, and it doesn't help that, because of security fears, Shiite workers tasked with rebuilding projects are often unwilling to go into Sunni areas—leading Sunnis to charge that the Shiite-led government is denying them essential services.
The Iraqi government would be well advised to brace for other charges as well, particularly from the U.S. Congress. The surge was sold to the American public on the premise that better security would buy the Iraqi government time to move ahead on 18 benchmarks set by Congress to foster reconciliation. These include, most prominently, measures to divvy up the nation's oil wealth and to bring former low-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's old Baath Party back to work. Thousands of low-ranking Baathists were fired by the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority from jobs as teachers and bureaucrats in 2003, fueling support for the insurgency. But a draft de-Baathification bill was dramatically jettisoned last month by Shiite politicos who complained that it amounted to a general pardon. Sunni legislators in turn accuse Shiite members of being bent on revenge.
It's a problem, but some American officials are keeping a closer eye on deeds rather than legislated words. "By all accounts, the government is actually distributing money and hiring Baathists in a way that the laws would have them do, and yet they won't pass the dumb laws," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If that's the case, why don't they just do it and get Congress off their backs? One reason, Biddle and others argue, is that the government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains "scared to death" of the Sunnis, but the security environment has improved just enough that legislators are willing to experiment with concessions.
That's a step removed, however, from passing laws that legally mandate them to empower their enemies, particularly if they begin to see signs of security backsliding. U.S. officials add that laws still need to come next. The question is whether they will come during Maliki's tenure. Many U.S. officials have their doubts. "Maliki," says one, "sees a coup behind every palm tree."
3. A firebrand cleric
One of the biggest factors in the recent downturn in violence beyond even the surge, U.S. military officials privately point out, is the decision of Sadr to declare a cease-fire for his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army. But the stand down has a shelf life: It expires in February, and what the Shiite cleric will do at that point is anyone's guess. It is clear that the cease-fire has allowed him to consolidate his authority with some expedient housecleaning: Sadr is challenged by rogue elements in his own force, "and so you call a cease-fire and let the Americans" go after those who fail to follow commands, says Biddle. "You don't get blood on your hands, and it produces a more malleable militia."
America is engaging in a bit of realpolitik of its own in southern Iraq, where criminal Shiite gangs have been duking it out for control of Iraq's rich southern oil city, Basra, and environs. The gangs there have formed an uneasy alliance for now, officials say, but they are vigorously vying for influence. The British, who have military responsibility for the region, hand over control of Basra (Iraq's second-largest city) to the Iraqis this week, completing the turnover of the southern provinces of the country.
Despite disturbing accounts of intimidation and violence—such as militants threatening schoolgirls without head scarves and the killings of Iraqis who cooperated with the British troops—some argue that it would be a mistake for U.S. forces to get involved in the internecine squabbles of rival Shiite factions. There is little chance of that happening; the U.S. military can ill afford to divert its troops to the south. "It's certainly not an ideal situation down there," says a senior U.S. military official, "but we believe it's manageable."
What does worry U.S. officials is the level of Iranian involvement in the south. And the more unstable the region is, the more opportunities for Iran to meddle. "Because the Shia are essentially at war with one another, it gives the Iranians opportunities to build influence among all sides," says Robert Grenier, the cia's former Iraq mission manager and now managing director at Kroll Inc. And that is a key concern, a senior military official says. "That's what really worries us."
But military officials point to some small shifts in Iran's behavior. "It's not definite, but there are hopeful signs" of Iran's following through on its pledge earlier this summer to cease militia aid, says the official. "There have been interims of lower [explosively formed projectiles, the most deadly form of roadside bomb in the country today] and fewer indirect fire attacks." What's more, the official adds, the United States "has taken some small steps as well," releasing two Iranians captured and accused of being members of the elite Iranian Quds force earlier this year.
4. A big-oil town
Throughout this war, Kurdish-run northern Iraq has been largely removed from the convulsive chaos besetting the rest of the country. But the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk—generally described as a powder keg or a time bomb, take your pick—threatens that relative calm. The Kurds want control of the city, and a referendum, supposedly by year's end, was meant to determine its fate. But like so much on the country's political plate, that vote has been delayed. In the meantime, Kurdish leaders have been moving Kurdish families—many forced out during Saddam's efforts to Arabize the city—and displacing Sunnis to make sure they have the votes to win the referendum, whenever it is held.
U.S. military officials are urging the Kurdish leaders to act carefully. Turkey has threatened to come across the border to strike against separatist terrorists taking refuge in Iraq, though that's looking less likely as snow curtails travel through mountain passes. There is concern, too, that "the Kurds will overreach and drive a portion of the Sunni population into the waiting arms of the Baathist resistance and al Qaeda as defenders of last resort," says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "We'd advise our Kurdish friends to take that into consideration as they feel their way forward politically."
Some of the best news of the year in Iraq has been the teaming up of Sunni sheiks and local so-called security volunteers with U.S. forces to battle the Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq. The so-called Sunni Awakening has transformed the situation in once deadly Anbar province, as well as in other Sunni strongholds. That's a positive development, but analysts are quick to point out that these may be fair-weather friends only so long as the United States provides a counterbalance to the Shiite-dominated government. So far, the Iraqi government is in no hurry to bring Sunni contingents—now being paid by the U.S. military—into the ranks of the official security forces.
This fact has not stopped the U.S. military from pressing hard to try to speed up the process by which Sunnis are being brought into the security forces, however—the last thing American officials want is to disappoint the job expectations of armed former Sunni insurgents who could again turn on U.S. and government forces. In the meantime, the U.S. military will be concentrating on job creation programs to move Sunnis into paid work in the months ahead.
But there remain plenty of doubts about the current government's ability to put aside its sectarian leanings, and U.S. officials are losing hope for a government of national unity. Today, the operative word is accommodation, not reconciliation. "It's not like they're going to be reconciled—it's just that they have to learn how not to kill each other," says James Miller of the Center for New American Security in Washington. And so officials are thinking locally. This bottom-up approach means that U.S. forces will continue to work closely with provincial governments and monitor to what extent they can establish and maintain order in their areas—and operate in a way, adds Miller, that there's not a great deal of friction between them.
But until two things happen, friction will remain the status quo in Baghdad, according to U.S. officials. "The Sunnis need to realize they've lost," says one senior military officer. "And the Shia need to realize they have won." The former is beginning to happen, as Sunnis come to the table in increasing numbers. The latter may take far more time.
How this all affects the political calculus on the ground in Iraq will be measured against the political calculus in Washington as well. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is credited with easing some of the administration's Iraq tensions with Capitol Hill by being a consensus builder and a pragmatist. "We're not trying to scare anyone or play politics," Gates said in recent congressional testimony. "That's not the way I do business." This tack has taken some pressure off the Bush administration—but not all. Ultimately, officials in Baghdad know, their options in Iraq will be dictated by progress on the ground.
With Kevin Whitelaw