They just got a different tool to use than we do: They kill innocent lives to achieve objectives. That's what they do. And they're good. They get on the TV screens and they get people to ask questions about, well, you know, this, that or the other. I mean, they're able to kind of say to people: Don't come and bother us, because we will kill you. Bush - Joint News Conference with Blair - 28 July '06

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Don't Know How to Exit Iraq? Ask the Sunnis

When and how should the United States leave Iraq? The people who could provide the most useful answer, Iraq's Arab Sunni hard-liners, are being ignored. Getting their opinion could be the first step toward quelling the insurgency.

foreignpolicy: As Bush administration officials and the media focus on Iraq's scheduled October 15 vote on the proposed constitution, the questions bandied about seem deceptively urgent: Will the proposed constitution win the electorate's approval? Is the Iraqi army growing stronger, and if so, at what rate? Can U.S. troops begin to withdraw next year, or will the current troop strength of about 150,000 be needed for years to come?

Yet at the same time, nearly everyone - including U.S. generals in charge of the Iraq war effort - admits that the insurgency will continue unabated no matter what, keeping Iraq trapped in the same anarchy and bloodshed as in the past two years. Almost entirely missing from this debate are those who presumably might know how best to stop the violence - the Sunni hard-liners and other nationalists who are closest to the insurgency. Largely unnoticed by Americans, these Iraqis have reached tacit consensus over the broad outline of an interim program to end the fighting, stabilize the country, and thus enable the U.S.-led coalition troops to begin a gradual withdrawal.

In telephone interviews from Baghdad, the most prominent hard-liners show more nuanced and realistic positions than might be expected. They admit that any U.S. withdrawal will necessarily be long and slow. At the same time, they insist on a series of preliminary concessions that would be highly controversial in both Iraq and the United States.

"We realize it will be a while before the Bush administration or congress become serious about talking about withdrawal," said Wamid Nadhmi, the leader of the Arab Nationalist Trend, a group that boycotted the January elections, and spokesman for the Formative Conference of Iraq, a Sunni-Shiite coalition that opposes the U.S. troop presence. "We realize it will take a significant amount of time, and it will require negotiations over many issues."

On July 29, Nadhmi was one of 47 Iraqis representing groups opposed to the U.S. occupation who met in Beirut and cosigned a statement expressing support for "the valiant armed resistance to the occupation." In a sign of internal bickering between Baathist and non-Baathist sectors, that statement did not include a common platform. But Nadhmi and other hard-line Sunnis and secular nationalists in Baghdad who were interviewed for this article said there is near-unanimous agreement among Sunnis on many key demands.

First, they want a U.S. troop pullout from most urban areas and an end to military checkpoints and raids in residential zones. "The Americans and British must leave all residential areas," said Esam al-Rawi, a leader of the Muslim Scholars Association, a group of 3,000 Sunni clerics. "When they retreat to military bases outside the major cities, and the Iraqi people know they will no longer be meeting military trucks and tanks in the streets and highways, and they will no longer be afraid their homes will be invaded at night, then people will no longer join the resistance."

Second, they demand the release of American-held prisoners and an end to the "de-Baathification" process that turns every former mid to high-ranking Baath Party member into an unemployable outcast. The number of Iraqi prisoners in American military custody has grown rapidly in recent months, with more than 12,000 Iraqis behind bars as of early September, according to U.S. estimates. Widespread anecdotal evidence indicates that the U.S. military routinely arrests any fighting-age male who flees the scene of a bombing or attack. Because there is no formal trial process, the wait for vetting prisoners and releasing those found innocent is glacially slow. "Several relatives of mine were imprisoned for months, and there was no evidence," said Nadhmi. "That makes Iraqis very, very angry."

All the Iraqis interviewed for this article said they did not advocate release of Saddam Hussein or others accused of involvement in killings and torture. "No, it is not necessary to release them," al-Rawi said. "They are bad men. They have committed crimes. But you must release the others."

Third, they want to end the Shiite and Kurdish militias' dominance of the Iraqi Army and National Guard, especially within the so-called Sunni Triangle. Although the White House and Democrats alike say they want to turn over security duties to Iraqi government forces as soon as possible, Sunni Arabs point out that those institutions are almost completely composed of the Sunnis' archenemies - the Shiite Badr Brigade and the Kurdish peshmerga. The Sunnis would rather U.S. or other multinational forces stay longer and ensure diversity in the Iraqi security forces than leave hastily and hand Iraqi security over to the Shiites and Kurds.

International human rights groups, echoed grudgingly by some U.S. and Iraqi officials, have said there are credible reports that Badr Brigade units in the Army and National Guard are acting as death squads, killing and torturing Sunni Arabs. In addition, they say, torture of prisoners has become common practice among police units. "The Sunni community is being attacked around the clock by the Badr Brigade and the peshmerga," said Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest legal Arab Sunni political group. "These people want to humiliate the Sunni."

Fourth, they want the U.S. and Iraqi governments to open negotiations with the non-terrorist factions of the insurgency. Sunni leaders draw a line between what they call the "resistance," by which they mean Iraqi fighters who attack only U.S. and Iraqi troops, and the foreign-led extremists linked to al Qaeda who have spread terror with suicide bombings against Shiite civilians. "Among the resistance, there is now a tendency to take part in the political scenario," said al-Hashimi. "Those sectors should be encouraged by the American administration...There must be a genuine offer to recruit them, to get them back to a political role."

All the Iraqis consulted discount fears that in the absence of U.S. troops, Sunni-Shiite animosity might flare up into civil war. "The situation of people and religion, it is very, very complicated now," said al-Rawi. "We admit this. We are reasonable people. But there will not be civil war, because neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites want that."

At the same time, most admit that an eventual U.S. pullout would indeed involve a surrender of sorts to terrorism. The Sunni extremist groups linked to al Qaeda might capitalize on a U.S. pullout to declare victory and continue their global jihad in other nations, as they did after previous fights in Afghanistan and Chechnya. "If the Americans leave, al Qaeda will have to leave Iraq, or there might be clashes between the resistance and al Qaeda," said Nadhmi. "People are getting fed up with al Qaeda's methods; they don't like their ways of killing Iraqis, women, children, or when they use these car bombs against civilians."

For most Iraqis, what happens elsewhere is none of their concern. "We want all foreign fighters to leave, the Americans and the terrorists," Nadhmi added. "We do not care where they go. They should fight someplace else, but not in Iraq." Link