Iraq: The Long War

29 May 2005

Iraq: The Long War

By Gwynne Dyer

“One thing we know about insurgencies is that they last from, you know, three, four years to nine years,” said General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chefs of Staff, in mid-May. “These are tough fights, and in the end it’s going to have to be the Iraqis that win this.” All quite true, and much franker than what usually comes out of the Pentagon — but he didn’t say WHICH Iraqis were going to win in the end. Perhaps because he doesn’t know.

At the moment the insurgency is on the upswing again. About 750 Iraqis died in May as a result of bomb attacks that mainly targeted prospective recruits and serving members of the US-trained army and police, and more American soldiers were killed than in any month since January, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a crisis is approaching. Insurgent activity peaks and falls off again in Iraq in a well-established rhythm, but only four times in the past two years have more than a hundred American soldiers been killed in a single month. This level of casualties is unlikely to force an early American pull-out.

All recent opinion polls show that a clear majority of Iraqis want US forces to leave at once or very soon — two-thirds of Shia Arabs (60 percent of the population) and practically all Sunni Arabs (20 percent) — with only the Kurdish minority wanting them to stay. But that doesn’t have much to do with how long they actually remain. That depends on two things: Washington’s assessment of the likely final outcome, and the Iraqi government’s judgement about whether or not it can survive without American troops.

The present government of Iraq, finally installed last month after three months of haggling over cabinet posts between the United Iraqi Alliance (i.e., the Shia religious parties) and the Kurds, is not just an appointed puppet government like its predecessor. However, the whole US-supervised political exercise is so suspect that only 185 of the 275 National Assembly members bothered to show up to ratify Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister on 3 May, and the Kurdish-Shia Arab coalition is a shotgun marriage that hides deep and fundamental disagreements about the future of the Iraqi state. Moreover, the Sunni Arabs are still frozen out.

The new cabinet contains some token Sunni Arab ministers, but they represent practically nobody but themselves. The Sunni Arab minority, the main support of the current insurgency, overwhelmingly boycotted the election on 30 January and holds only 17 seats in the 275-member National Assembly — and only two Sunni Arabs were appointed to the 55-member committee that is to write Iraq’s permanent constitution. Yet there is no hope of ending the insurgency unless the Sunni Arabs as a whole are reconciled to the new dispensation.

At the moment, the Sunni Arabs do not have a credible collective leadership with whom the government could negotiate even if it wanted to, and there’s not much point in trying to negotiate with the insurgents, either: some 38 different groups have claimed attacks against US troops. Nor will sealing the frontiers help, as the great majority of the insurgents are Iraqis moved by some combination of nationalism, Islamism, and/or Baathism. (The International Institute for Strategic Studies recently estimated that there are between 20,000 and 50,000 insurgents, organised in some 75 separate units.)

Another election might ease some of the strains if substantial numbers of Sunni Arabs chose to participate next time, but it is far from clear that they would, and in any case the timetable is slipping fast. Current deadlines foresee completion of the new constitution by 15 August, a referendum on it in October, and new elections in December (assuming that the referendum says “yes”), but three months were lost in haggling between Kurds and Shias over government jobs and now that schedule is most unlikely to be met. In fact, it will be surprising if they can even agree on a new constitution by the end of the year — and Sunni Arab views will scarcely be represented at all.

So the violence will probably continue at around the current level for the next six to nine months at least, and beyond that the future is simply unforeseeable. Whether you choose to call this a civil war or not, the fact is that almost all of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs, while the new Iraqi army and police forces are overwhelmingly Shias and Kurds. So long as the insurgency continues, the Shia leadership is unlikely to demand the immediate departure of American troops — and so far, the US still seems determined to stay.

It is a long time since the early days of the occupation, when US officials spoke airily about a prolonged occupation of Iraq and only very gradual moves towards putting power back into Iraqi hands, but they have (deliberately or accidentally) created a situation in which key Iraqi players depend on their continued presence. Nor is there any sign that Washington has yet given up its plans for “enduring bases” in Iraq as the strategic centre from which it can perpetuate its military domination of the oil-rich Gulf region. This is going to be a long war.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Another…at all”)