Guarding Iraq's Gates of Hell

February 20, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Tags: SuperpowerIraq War

Guarding Iraq's Gates of Hell

A centralized government would be better equipped to manage security-force restructuring than the current federal one.

According to the current Iraqi ambassador to the United States, a U.S. departure from Iraq "would open the gates of hell, not just internally but regionally." Ambassador Sumaida'ie, who spoke at the Nixon Center on Friday, offered a sobering and straightforward assessment of the situation in Iraq. The ambassador said that like Afghanistan, the troubled country now lies along a "fault line" in the "monumental struggle between two outlooks." Iraq-wracked by sectarian violence, anarchy, crime and corruption-currently faces a crisis of existential proportions.

While it is undeniable that Iraq is in turmoil, the ambassador faulted the American media for incorrectly portraying the chaos there. Though Washington pundits may say otherwise, Sumaida'ie insists that the sectarian strife does not qualify as a civil war. The Sunni-Shi‘a violence is not "Iraqis killing each other"; rather, it is "extremists killing innocent citizens." There is no sense of mass struggle, present in the civil wars of Lebanon and Yugoslavia. Instead, the sectarian violence is a war among militias-funded by neighboring countries-that cloak their power-grabbing activities in religious catchphrases. Most Iraqis are "terrified" of the "continual massacre" and have no appetite for warfare, the ambassador said. More than two million Iraqis have left their country in recent years to escape "the blood in the streets."

The civil-war scenario also downplays the contribution of criminal activities to the insecurity in Iraq. The ambassador stated that one of the most lucrative industries in his country-second only to oil-is kidnapping for ransom.

Despite Iraq's much-discussed ethnic divisions, the ambassador argued that conflict and deprivation were not always in the cards for his country. In 1968, the year that the Ba‘athi regime came to power, Iraq had a $35 billion surplus and a GDP that rivaled Spain's.

Saddam Hussein's brutal government squandered the country's financial resources in two costly wars, leaving Iraq deeply in debt. International sanctions imposed in the aftermath of Saddam's misadventures further damaged the Iraqi economy. The value of the Iraqi dinar dropped precipitously, to the point where the monthly income of a doctor was ten dollars. To make ends meet in such bleak circumstances, Iraqis had to resort to unethical means-and, consequently, corruption started to flourish.

Iraqi society was also shot through with hopelessness, thanks to the masses of young, uneducated, unemployed veterans of Iraq's conflicts. These men returned from the front, the ambassador said, to find that they had few prospects: "The only thing they know-Kalashnikovs." Thus, once U.S. forces toppled the Ba‘athi regime, Iraqis-law-abiding or otherwise-were quick to try out the novel opportunities that their newfound liberty accorded them. While most Iraqis voted in large numbers and debated once-taboo political issues, criminals took advantage of the security vacuum.

The ambassador explained that this lack of law and order stemmed, at least in part, from "gross [U.S.] mismanagement in the period immediately after the removal of Saddam." After Saddam's security organization was thoroughly dismantled, no viable alternative was created in its place. In the absence of an effective screening process, the new security forces were soon riddled with criminals and militia members. The failure of U.S. military forces to police Iraq's borders and arms depots has also contributed to the current predicament. Sumaida'ie recalled that his reconstruction recommendations for the Anbar province-his family's home for a millennium-were largely brushed aside by U.S. authorities.

The Iraqi ambassador has also encountered difficulty in promoting his ideas in Washington. He compared dealing with the U.S. political apparatus to "talking to a monster with 1,000 heads"-and having to speak individually to each "head." He asked his audience to "please tell me in which ear should I whisper in Washington" to gain support for his suggestions. 

Sumaida'ie laid out a detailed plan for reform of the security forces. He believes that the forces can be immeasurably improved if known criminals are evicted from its ranks. After being stripped of their posts, these individuals should be tracked to ensure that they do not re-enter the forces under an assumed identity. Security-force vehicles should be carefully monitored too, as the criminals in the force try to misuse them. While the recommendations would cost tens of millions of dollars to implement, they would ultimately save money by mitigating a pressing problem.

A centralized government would be better equipped to manage security-force restructuring than the current federal one. When Sumaida'ie was interior minister, the security forces reported to local American commanders, rather than to him-a sign that the government in Baghdad lacked power. The current Iraqi constitution reflects the Iraqis' distrust of centralized government, a consequence of Saddam Hussein's rule. Unfortunately, the ambassador noted that the "reaction to an over-powerful central government has been to go too far to the other side." Before the Iraqi government possessed even a modicum of legitimacy, it was already doling out its nonexistent authority to the provinces.

Since Iraq's provinces already have difficulty hanging together, some in the United States have suggested a partition of the country along ethnic and confessional lines. This, Sumaida'ie argued, is based on the faulty assumption that the boundaries that divide the Shi‘a, Sunni and Kurdish populations are distinct. The ambassador's statistics indicate that approximately 30 percent of Iraqis intermarry. The borders that would supposedly separate Iraqis into clear-cut groups "would have to go through every bedroom in the land." The largest tribes in Iraq count both Sunni and Shi‘a among their members, and, when push comes to shove, Iraqis traditionally lend support to their fellow tribesmen over the members of their particular sect. If the violence inside Iraq's borders can be tamped down, these tribal allegiances could eventually be used to promote national reconciliation. However, as daily life in Iraq has become increasingly precarious, security, not reconciliation, is the population's principal concern.

An effective way to improve security in Iraq, from the ambassador's point of view, is the troop surge proposed by President Bush. A heightened sense of security-as provided by the surge-would not only lead to dramatic improvement in the Iraqis' standard of living, it would also rebuild trust in U.S. forces. Currently, because the inadequate number of U.S. troops cannot provide basic safety for ordinary Iraqis, many Iraqis now believe that the United States is trying to destroy Iraq.

The ambassador cautioned against the withdrawal of U.S. forces, as that would result in Iraq's complete disintegration. At this point, neither the Americans nor the Iraqis alone can manage the problems in Iraq; they will have to cooperate closely. "Iraq is a responsibility that the U.S. should not walk away from," the ambassador said, "we're in this together, sink or swim."

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.