Looking for Wise Moves toward Iraq and Iran

By Davis, Charlie | National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Looking for Wise Moves toward Iraq and Iran


Davis, Charlie, National Catholic Reporter


The October vote on Iraq's constitution will have taken place by the time this column is published, but events in Iraq and in this country make it clear that no matter the outcome of that vote or the vote in the Iraqi elections in December the support of the American people and Congress for the war has seriously eroded.

This means that whatever the statements of the president and the secretary of defense, the U.S. military presence will be seriously drawn down in Iraq beginning in 2006. And since our troops there are already insufficient in numbers to provide security, what are the likely consequences?

It is unlikely that indigenous Iraqi military forces will soon (if ever) be able to stand on their own. The ranks of the Iraqi army and the police are infiltrated by insurgents; the families of soldiers are being attacked by the resistance; and the Sunni political leadership on the side of the coalition is weak. In the future, even with stepped-up military training, it is unlikely that a significant number of competent Iraqi troops will be able to provide security, particularly in the Sunni areas. This will further weaken the Iraqi government's ability to overcome the insurgency and keep the country together. The most likely scenario in the next few years is that the country will, de facto, disintegrate into three semiautonomous regions controlled by Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.

In this light, it is time to start thinking what U.S. responsibilities should be to the entities that make up the country and what new directions there should be for U.S. policies in the region, particularly toward Iran.

The Kurds, who already have their own independent army and some of Iraq's oil reserves, will continue to dominate the northeast of the country. What could be worrisome is the reaction of the Turks and the Iranians if the Kurds should appear too independent. Both Turkey and Iran have significant Kurdish minorities; neither wishes an outbreak of Kurdish nationalism within their own borders. To stem such a prospect, either country could invade the Iraqi Kurdish territory; the Turks did just that after the 1991 Gulf War. The United States has protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein (and the Turks) since the early 1990s with combat air patrols. Our responsibility is to keep protecting them as long as the Kurds do not encourage irredentist elements in their neighboring states.

The Shiites in the south, with most of Iraq's oil reserves and population, will be happy if the Sunnis are isolated. The big concern for the United States is that Iran, with its overwhelming Shiite population, could seek to dominate the Shiite portion of Iraq. However, columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the Sept. 28 New York Times: "The Brits [whose military forces are patrolling the Shiite region] ... will tell you, the Iraqi Arab Shiites here are obsessed with not being dominated by Iran."

If the United States can count on Shiite independence along with the relative independence of the Kurds with their oil supplies, then the flow of Iraqi oil will be relatively assured. More important is the U.S. obligation to the Shiite people. They thought the first Bush administration had promised them backing to rise up against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War, but while the United States protected the Kurds, it neglected the Shiites--and the Iraqi president decimated the population. In the future, with continued U.S. and British military help, Iraqi Arab Shiites should be able to protect themselves from pressure from either the Sunnis or Iran. Shiite aspirations for self-rule will finally become a reality.

The three great concerns of U.S. policy in the region are: to contain elements that seek to foment terrorism, to have a secure supply of oil and to restrain Iran from developing nuclear weapons. For perspective, it is important to remember that the two greatest U.S. concerns after World War II were to contain the spread of communism and to prevent the Soviets from acquiring nuclear weapons.

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