The U.S. military "surge" initiated in mid-2007 in Baghdad and neighboring Iraqi provinces has been largely successful in military terms. It has helped to lower the level of violence suffered by Iraqis and Americans alike and, in tandem with other steps, has restored measure of security to western Iraq and portions of Baghdad. Yet military operations alone are insufficient to restore stability and keep the country intact.
As the surge approaches its midpoint, the Iraqi government still shows little progress toward political reconciliation. As if the political stalemate in Baghdad were not enough, Iraq in the months ahead will face three other potentially explosive political events: provincial elections, a controversial census, and a referendum to determine who will govern oil-rich Kirkuk.
To build on the achievements of the military surge, the United States must have four priorities. First, Washington must continue to support the elected government in Baghdad, helping it to establish its authority through the consensual exercise of power. Second, the United States must encourage provincial elections as a vehicle for political reform and for loosening the hold of sectarian loyalty upon the political process. Third, efforts to build a truly national Iraqi military force recruited from all sectors of the population must be reinforced. Fourth, tangible cooperation between Iraq and its neighbors on border security must be achieved in order to reduce the flow of money and foreign fighters that stokes the insurgencies.
In taking these steps, the United States must weigh its tactical choices carefully, not only avoiding stances on specific issues that tilt too far to any one side but also pressing for an end to factional control of government ministries. Emphasizing the uncertain outcome of the 2008 U.S. elections and the prospect of a precipitous drawdown of American forces is a way to underscore the need for political progress.
Iraq's Internal Divisions
With the collapse of Iraq's Ba'thist government in 2003, the United States appeared to be in a position to shape the country's political direction and reestablish civil society. Despite Iraq's history of serious political violence, especially Saddam Hussein's repression of Kurdish and Shi'a populations at the end of the war with Iran and after the abortive rebellions of 1991, the turmoil had never taken the form of outright intersectarian warfare. There was at least some reason to hope that such warfare could be avoided in the post-Saddam transition as well, and indeed that was the case--for a while. Initially, the need for Kurd and Arab, Sunni and Shi'a, to establish bases of power and lines of authority in the nascent political process masked communal unease. Early attempts by Sunni extremists and renegade Ba'thists to provoke violence and civil war were unsuccessful. At that moment, America's ability to influence nationbuilding and create a more equitable and secure country was at its greatest.
The moment was brief. As American leverage over Iraq's political future waned, Iraqi factions that had been long isolated and excluded from power assumed dominant roles in the succeeding provisional governments and proceeded to deconstruct Iraqi politics, society, and security. Iraq today is a country divided by competing identities and loyalties. Some Iraqis find their primary identity in their ethnic origins--Kurds seeking to right historic wrongs through maximalist demands for territory and wealth, Arabs and Turkmen trying, in response, to defend their own rights to land and resources. Others identify themselves primarily according to religious sect--Sunnis trying to reestablish their historical political dominance, Shi'a determined to enjoy their newfound status as the majority group in a newly democratic country.
Iraq is not in the midst of a single insurgency focused simply on ending American occupation, nor is it enmeshed in a sectarian civil war in which one clearly defined religious faction makes war on another over doctrinal differences. …