December 7, 2007

Iraqi politicians far behind the power curve

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Iraqi politicians far behind the power curve
The “surge” provides a narrow window of opportunity

Six months into the surge, there is by all accounts notable and tangible progress on the military front. General David Petraeus has initiated and conducted an effective counterinsurgency campaign, a multi-faceted effort that combines civic action with changed military tactics. The campaign has virtually crippled al-Qaida in Iraq and almost stopped sectarian violence. In an audio tape released in October, Usama bin Laden criticized his followers in Iraq for failing to unite against the “occupiers” and his last tape does not even address his affiliates – one could take this as an admission of defeat in Iraq.

The Shia militias have largely followed the orders of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and stopped attacks on coalition troops. Additionally – for whatever reason – the Iranians have diminished the flow of advanced weaponry to the Shia militias.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately Iraq’s politicians have failed to capitalize on these military successes. The goal of the surge was to contain the violence and give Iraqi politicians a chance to close the wide chasm between the Sunni and Shia factions in the country. The Shias, treated poorly for decades under successive Sunni-dominated regimes and before that by the Sunni Ottomans, are loathe to relinquish any of their newly gained power – guaranteed by virtue of their majority status. The Sunnis, who resent their loss of power, now fear the Shia “tyranny of the majority.” The two sides are still far apart in reconciling themselves to work together for effective governance.

Add to that the Kurds, who are not helping by operating the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government like it is an independent country. Making deals with European oil companies to exploit the natural resources of the Kurdish region circumvents solving one of the major issues in Iraq - equitable distribution of oil revenues. This is a hot-button issue for the Sunnis. If the Kurds are allowed to control the oil resources in their region, the Sunnis fear that the Shias will follow suit and control the oil resources in their area – nearly 80 percent of Iraq’s total oil reserves, leaving virtually no oil resources in the Sunni-dominated areas. The Shia-led government has yet to demonstrate its commitment to national reconciliation to the satisfaction of the Sunnis. Passing a national oil law would be a good first step – it has been in the works for over four years.

Everyone, from the military officers prosecuting the war to the State Department officers involved in working political issues with the Iraqi government, knows that the ultimate solution in Iraq is not going to be decided militarily on the streets of Baghdad. It will only be solved politically in the halls of Parliament. The question is, when? How much time are we Americans willing to give them to come to terms with their situation and develop a workable solution? Our patience is wearing thin.

Bottom line: The current situation presents a brief window of opportunity to make political gains, a brief window of opportunity to bring about reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shias. This opportunity was created by the efforts and sacrifices of American troops. The political leaders in Iraq, starting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, should be put on notice that the American public is fast running out of patience: We have sent our sons and daughters to provide you with a chance to put your house in order – do not squander it, for there will not likely be more chances in the future.