Both houses of Congress have now backed a timeline for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq in 2008, which George W. Bush has vowed to veto. He gives two major rationales for rejecting withdrawal. At times he has warned that Iraq could become an Al Qaeda stronghold, at others that “a contagion of violence could spill out across the country–and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.” These are bogeymen with which Bush has attempted to frighten the public. Regarding the first, Turkey, Jordan and Iran are not going to put up with an Al Qaeda stronghold on their borders; nor would Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis. Most Sunni Iraqis are relatively secular, and there are only an estimated 1,000 foreign jihadis in Iraq, who would be forced to return home if the Americans left.
Bush’s ineptitude has made a regional proxy war a real possibility, so the question is how to avoid it. One Saudi official admitted that if the United States withdrew and Iraq’s Sunnis seemed in danger, Riyadh would likely intervene. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has threatened to invade if Iraq’s Kurds declare independence. And Iran would surely try to rescue Iraqi Shiites if they seemed on the verge of being massacred.
But Bush is profoundly in error to think that continued US military occupation can forestall further warfare. Sunni Arabs perceive the Americans to have tortured them, destroyed several of their cities and to be keeping them under siege at the behest of the joint Shiite-Kurdish government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. American missteps have steadily driven more and more Sunnis to violence and the support of violence. The Pentagon’s own polling shows that between 2003 and 2006 the percentage of Sunni Arabs who thought attacking US troops was legitimate grew from 14 to more than 70.
The US repression of Sunnis has allowed Shiites and Kurds to avoid compromise. The Sunnis in Parliament have demanded that the excesses of de-Baathification be reversed (thousands of Sunnis have been fired from jobs just because they belonged to the Baath Party). They have been rebuffed. Sunnis rejected the formation of a Shiite super-province in the south. Shiites nevertheless pushed it through Parliament. The Kurdish leadership has also dismissed Sunni objections to their plans to annex the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which has a significant Arab population.
The key to preventing an intensified civil war is US withdrawal from the equation so as to force the parties to an accommodation. Therefore, the United States should announce its intention to withdraw its military forces from Iraq, which will bring Sunnis to the negotiating table and put pressure on Kurds and Shiites to seek a compromise with them. But a simple US departure would not be enough; the civil war must be negotiated to a settlement, on the model of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon.
Talks require a negotiating partner. The first step in Iraq must therefore be holding provincial elections. In the first and only such elections, held in January 2005, the Sunni Arab parties declined to participate. Provincial governments in Sunni-majority provinces are thus uniformly unrepresentative, and sometimes in the hands of fundamentalist Shiites, as in Diyala. A newly elected provincial Sunni Arab political class could stand in for the guerrilla groups in talks, just as Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, did in Northern Ireland.