Structural problems that work against Iraqi reconciliation

Bing West and Max Boot:

Strolling down Airplane Road in the Dora district, it's clear what has happened in Iraq during the last year. A former war zone has become a place where shops and schools are open and housing prices are rising.

The strategy of "surging" 30,000 American soldiers into Iraq and stationing most of them outside of giant U.S. bases has made a crucial difference. Like Gen. Matthew Ridgeway in Korea, Gen. David Petraeus has rescued a failing war effort. He applied the classic counterinsurgency tactic of protecting the population. The people in turn provided information about the terrorists hiding in their midst.

A staggered Al Qaeda is steadily losing one redoubt after another because, in the most important shift in the war, the Sunni people turned against the terrorists and aligned with the American soldiers. Over 80,000 men (mainly Sunnis) have joined neighborhood watch groups that the U.S. calls Concerned Local Citizens. Essential in last year's battles to drive Al Qaeda out of Baghdad, the CLCs also provide Sunnis with a defense against Shiite militias.

Now, victory is within our grasp -- if only the Iraqi government could effectively reach out to Sunnis and Shiites alike who are fed up with violence and sectarian divisions.

Yet the perverse political system stymies such an outcome. In 2004, U.S. and U.N. officials pushed through an electoral process that resulted in votes for parties rather than individual candidates. This left party bosses in Baghdad free to appoint hacks who do not answer to any local constituency and face no penalty for failing to provide essential services. Water, electricity, garbage collection and job creation are in terrible shape, especially in Sunni areas, because the government is run by Shiites.

American battalion commanders have stepped in. Officers trained to attack cities, not run them, have temporarily assumed the duties of city managers, cadging resources and hounding Iraqi officials to disburse hoarded funds.

This situation cannot last indefinitely. American officers cannot take the place of the missing government of Iraq. The CLCs must be incorporated into the police. But the government headed by Nouri Maliki is moving with agonizing slowness, running the risk that civil war may be reignited.


However, it is the government's ineffectiveness, not the insurgency, that is Iraq's biggest problem. Maliki has antagonized the Kurds, Sunnis and most of the Shiite parties. In no small part, his conduct stems from a perception that President Bush's support is assured. Bush goes out of his way to support the embattled prime minister, whether in news conferences or in their regular video teleconferences.

I agree that there are some structural problems in the Iraqi government, but Maliki is as much a victim of that structural problem as the cities that need support from Baghdad. Recall that it took months to just choose Maliki. This is because it is impossible to get a vote on anything in Iraq unless there is a substantial majority that wants something to happen. I do think it is going to take an election to break the log jam.


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