Iraq: The Forgotten War

11/29/2010 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm sure it was only a coincidence, but there's a certain undeniable symbolism in the fact that the official end of combat operations in the nearly eight-year-old war in Iraq came on the same day as my regularly scheduled colonoscopy.

President Obama's Aug. 31 declaration that "Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country" marked the turning point of one of the most catastrophic missteps in the history of American foreign policy.

The invasion of Iraq launched in March 2003 by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush triggered a conflict that has lasted longer than World War II,; claimed over 4,400 American lives; injured more than 31,000 GI's, many of whom will require lifelong care; killed God knows how many Iraqis; cost the U.S. close to a trillion dollars and left some 50,000 American troops still in harm's way.

And that's even without taking into consideration the fact that Iraqis still seem more interested in killing each over religious differences than forming a workable government, and that the drawdown in Iraq has been accompanied by a massive buildup of American military power in Afghanistan that could disrupt plans for a U.S. pullout beginning next summer.

Yet the Iraq war has all but fallen off the front pages and is still practically ignored by Congress, the news media and the American public. That's why I read with great interest a Nov. 15 article by Larry Kaplow on the Foreign Policy website, based on his experience as the longest serving American journalist in Iraq.

You can read it in its entirely on the website, and you should since I think it's one of the most perceptive and realistic assessments of that misbegotten war

The 46-year-old Kaplow, who arrived in Baghdad just before the U.S. invasion in 2003 and was a reporter for Cox Newspapers before becoming Newsweek's Baghdad bureau chief in 2008, recently returned to the U.S. after Newsweek closed the bureau. The son of veteran network TV correspondent Herb Kaplow, he served two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala before joining Cox at the Palm Beach Post in 1992.

Kaplow offers his assessment of the Iraq war in a thought-provoking article entitled "Think Again: Iraq" in which he asks - and gives his own answers - to a series of commonly held assumptions about Iraq. I won't try to summarize his article but here are some of the highlights:

Iraq is a Democracy

In theory, but it doesn't work like one. Yes, it has had three free national elections and a constitutional referendum and there are elements of democracy. Saddam Hussein held his last election, a plebiscite in 2002, and claimed 100 percent of the vote (and maybe it was true -- who would risk voting against him?). Under the old regime, even when I could slip away from government minders, people were usually too scared of informants among their family and friends to speak openly. You weren't even allowed to keep your mouth shut. Failure to join the chanting crowds at pro-government rallies -- watched closely by neighborhood-level Baathists -- could cost you your job, admission to university, or worse. Now there's lots of open talk, government criticism, and widespread Internet access.

But Iraq is not democratic in a reliable or deep sense, where people can expect equal rights, legal protections, or access to their leaders. Free speech is still a dangerous pursuit. At least seven reporters or their staff have been killed this year in what appear to be direct attacks on news agencies, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most others are afraid to get too specific in their criticisms of the leadership. Regulations are tightening, and the track record of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has just maneuvered himself into another term in office, is getting darker.

Maliki Is Iran's Man

Not quite. Iraq's prime minister, stubbornly independent and impetuous, probably causes as many headaches in Tehran as he does in Washington. True, Maliki lived in Iran for eight years after escaping Iraq in 1979, when the regime wanted him and tens of thousands of other Islamic Dawa Party supporters for arrest and execution. He helped run a military camp in southern Iran where Dawa men trained for their guerrilla war against Saddam. But they constantly clashed with their Iranian hosts over issues of ideology (for one thing, Dawa refused to accept velayat al-faqih, the Iranian model that places government under clerical rule) and tactics.

Maliki plays the United States and Iran against each other for what he sees as Iraq's or his own interests. Associates say Maliki believes, rightly, that the fighters affiliated with militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that took up arms against his government got their weapons from Iran. I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually turns and decides to tolerate a longer U.S. presence just as a counterweight to Iran.

Sadr Calls the Shots

In his dreams. It was a disappointment for the U.S. and a win for Iran that Maliki's new government includes an alliance with Sadr. The radical anti-American cleric has been living in Iran since 2007, and Tehran funds and arms elements of his militias. Now his movement has helped put Maliki over the top and will hold at least a few cabinet seats. When they were in government before, the Sadrists nearly destroyed the Ministry of Health as they used hospitals for secret prisons or as places from which to hunt down Sunnis. They made a mess of the Ministry of Transportation and the national airlines, and diverted public money to build their party. But none of that means Sadr can run roughshod over the new government.

Remember, Sadr was instrumental in making Maliki prime minister last time, too. But once in office, Maliki turned the tables. Amid their abuses of the ministries they controlled, the Sadrists also demanded more power and then dropped out of the government when Maliki refused them. That's when Maliki, in the spring of 2008, turned the Iraqi Army loose on the Sadrist gangs in Basra and several other cities. The offensive didn't crush the movement -- many of the militants melted away into hiding while a cease fire was negotiated. But that set back the Sadrists and their leaders vowed never to back Maliki again.

Kirkuk Is a Time Bomb

Prove it. The prospects of a major conflict between Arabs and Kurds over the northern city of Kirkuk Merit concern, as we've been warned ad nauseum for the last seven years, but they aren't any greater than the chances of violence in a lot of other places in Iraq. The good thing about a city constantly being labeled a "potential flashpoint" is that it draws a lot of attention to keep it from erupting. As long as that tendency continues, there are several factors that could keep Kirkuk calm.

But the biggest test yet is on the way. A nationwide census scheduled for the end of this year will likely aggravate ethnic tensions. It could prompt Kurds to push more Arabs out -- to run up the Kurdish numbers -- or lead to a defensive outburst of violence from minority Arabs. It could provoke either side to overreach. The census was originally scheduled for 2007, then pushed ahead to this October and then again to December. The International Crisis Group has called for the census to be delayed further until the big issues can be resolved by the leadership.

The Iraq War Is Over

Which one? What Americans call "the Iraq war" has really been a series of conflicts, sometimes overlapping. There was the U.S. invasion, then the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda-type mayhem, followed by the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the U.S. troop surge in 2007. There was also the war in which mainstream Sunnis fought, with U.S. help, against al Qaeda-linked extremists. And there has been sporadic but fierce fighting among Shiite groups. This is partly what makes it so hellish for average Iraqis who are trying to work, keep their kids in school, and just survive: Front lines, threats, and enemies keep changing without notice.

Most of the bloodshed is still caused by groups loosely affiliated with al Qaeda-type extremists (more local than linked to the international al Qaeda). Former Baathists also carry out attacks and there is still a trickle of foreign bombers coming in from Syria -- about five to 10 a month, according to a U.S. military official I interviewed in late September.

The point is that several groups still apparently believe that Iraq can be destabilized to their advantage and it probably can. Looking ahead, there are the major Kurdish-Arab issues still to be settled. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose revered and patient guidance has cooled off several crises, is in his late 70s and ailing: Any successor will need years to accumulate influence matching his. Sadr is ambitious and unpredictable. Neighboring Sunni Arab regimes remain hostile to the idea of a Shiite-led government controlling Baghdad for the first time in centuries

It will take concerted diplomacy, economic development, and probably thousands of U.S. troops on the ground -- even if they're just in bases -- to make sure all these tensions don't pull the country and the region into chaos. The last thing Americans want is to have to return to Iraq and stitch it back together.

There you have it. Oh yes, my colonoscopy. It showed no malignancies, unlike the Iraq war.