While everyone else is having fun determining who "won" or "lost" the Democratic debate last night, I would like to revisit an important topic: Iraq. Because while the national news media (fickle as they are) have lost almost all interest in the situation in Iraq, it is still going to be a large issue in the November presidential election. Which means we should be paying attention to it now.
The right wing press and politicians have done an admirable job of framing on the Iraqi question, reducing it to a simple declaration: "The 'surge' is working!" And, they'll tell you, they have an array of data to back this statement up. So anyone who doesn't agree with it is obviously denying reality.
But Iraq has never been that simple a situation. Iraq is in the midst of a low-grade civil war between as many as six, seven, or even more factions. There are outside influences as well (from Turkey and Iran, to name but two). So it's hard to get any kind of clear picture of what is going on in Iraq to begin with.
A quick rundown of the various groups is in order.
Muqtada al-Sadr, in charge of his Mahdi Army (known as JAM inside of Iraq), has just extended his six-month cease fire for another six months. Nobody knows for sure why he has done so, just as nobody knows for sure why he tried this tactic in the first place. He may be outwaiting the Americans, and preserving his militia's strength for what happens when we leave. He may be consolidating and increasing his control over the group, by weeding out splinter groups that will not obey his orders alone. He has reportedly been in the Islamic equivalent of a seminary, in order to gain a higher religious rank (and the authority to issue fatwas), so he may be biding his time until he achieves these goals. But for whatever reason, he has stood down his troops, which has helped the situation in Iraq to stabilize during the "surge" months.
Sadr is a Shi'ite with a Shi'ite militia, but his is by no means the only such armed group from this sect. The situation in Basra, in the south of Iraq, shows that there are violent disagreements between these Shi'ite groups. Some of these groups are closer to Iran than others, and there are reports of them trying to institute Taliban-like control over parts of southern Iraq (denying women's rights, instituting their interpretation of Islamic law by force and intimidation, etc.). Basra and southern Iraq are also crucial to raking in Iraq's oil money, so the struggle for Basra may be the key to the question of which Shi'ite group emerges as the strongest. The British have pulled out of Basra, back to their base on the outskirts of town -- and they recently announced that they may not be sending their soldiers home as fast as they had previously planned. Because there aren't American soldiers in Basra, the American media largely ignores the region. But it may be a good early look at how other Iraqi regions may react to the drawdown of outside military forces, so it's worth paying attention to.
Moving to the middle of the country, there is Baghdad. Or more accurately, there is the Baghdad Green Zone, which is the only area in the entire country where the national government exercises anything like full control. The Maliki government has actually made some progress of late (more on that in a moment), but any control they exercise is diluted when it comes to the forces in the field. The Army is getting marginally better, but the Iraqi Police are still basically "Shi'ite militias with official uniforms and paychecks." Baghdad has been quieter during the "surge" for the most part, but it has yet to be determined how much of this is due to the "surge," and how much is due to the fact that the city has largely been successfully "ethnically cleansed" into single-sect neighborhoods surrounded by towering cement blast walls. Not too surprisingly, photos of these images don't ever seem to make it into American news reports.
Next up are the Sunnis. But here, again, more than one group is involved. First, there are the "Awakening" groups, which have been touted as the big success story of the "surge." Let's not mince words here -- these are groups that the United States of America is bribing not to attack us. Rolling Stone just published an excellent (and lengthy) article on this very subject. We are directly paying these groups not to attack us. They have largely signed up for this scheme. They are getting money and military training, and have effectively strengthened their forces for what they see as the upcoming battle between them and the Shi'ite militias. They are biding their time until we leave, or until the free money runs out. The national Iraqi government is supposed to be allowing these groups into the (largely Shi'ite) Army and Police, but this is largely a window-dressing political promise used to impress the Americans. It is not, in actuality, going to happen.
Then there is what is left of "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" (a name they chose because it scared the bejeezus out of Americans). Their military strength is down from its peak, to a large extent because of the "Awakening" troops not being under their direct control any more. Because of this, their attacks are now largely internecine, Sunni-on-Sunni violence. But they are being pushed north slowly, and will soon run into the most northern groups struggling for control in Iraq -- the Kurds.
It's doubtful whether the Kurds can be counted as one group or two. There may be "mainstream Kurds" and "the PKK" (the Kurdish resistance fighters, or "terrorist group," depending on who you believe). But this division may be illusory, much the same as there was (officially) "Sinn Fein" and "the Provisional IRA" in Northern Ireland (one group was the "political wing," and one the "military arm," but in reality they were one and the same organization). The Kurds want their own country. They have wanted this ever since the British drew some arbitrary lines on a map a century ago to divvy up the whole region. There are Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran as a result of this arbitrary division, but none of these countries want to give up land to a nascent "Kurdistan." But barring having their own country, the Iraqi Kurds want control over the oil fields around Kirkuk.
Turkey has launched a border war with the PKK along the Turkish/Iraqi border. The United States is caught in the middle. So far, we've been helping the Turkish military out with intelligence (satellite photos of targets, for one thing), and by looking the other way when they invade Iraqi airspace. But we're already getting nervous over the situation, and are politely requesting that the Turks leave in a week or so (setting timetables, anyone?). The Kurds themselves can't be feeling especially good about America right about now, seeing as how we have royally screwed them over before in the past (see: George H. W. Bush). So while the Kurdish area in Iraq has, up until this point, been our best success story in Iraq, this may change at any time.
Keep in mind (after reading all that) that this is nothing more than a simplified overview of the situation in Iraq. There are further divisions and detailed disagreements even below this bird's-eye view. And that's just where Iraq is currently, not where it's going to be this November when the U.S. elections are held.
There have been signs of progress on the ground, to be sure. The death rate was down in January from preceding months. But it may be inching back up in February. And in the next three or four months, the "surge" is going to go home, reducing the American military footprint to pre-"surge" numbers. Whether the situation stays where it is, gets better, or gets worse is anyone's guess at this point.
The Maliki government actually passed three important laws through their Parliament, which was also a sign of improvement, but the Presidential Council just vetoed one of them (the one the Sunnis supported), which is important because of the timing. Remember all those purple fingers from 2004? The plan was that local elections would take place in Iraq at the beginning of October, but now this is not going to happen. So President Bush, the Republicans, and John McCain won't have a media coup one month before our own elections. Look for some heavy pressure by the Bush folks to get this resolved, because it was obviously designed to put some "good news" from Iraq on the front pages of American newspapers while heading into the home stretch of our own election season. Also important to the timeline is the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr's six-month extension of his cease fire is also going to be up during October as well.
So, come November, Iraq could be about the same, better than it is now, or worse than it is now. If it's the same, it's going to be a loser for Republicans in the election, as America is tired of the entire enterprise (which the public has shown consistently in poll after poll, even with "the 'surge' is working" being the talking point of the day). If the situation is better, the advantage will be with McCain, who will no doubt be using some version of "I told you so" as his campaign theme. If it's worse in Iraq, Republicans might think they have the upper hand with "we'll be stronger on the war on terror," but the advantage is clearly going to be with Democrats -- because the public will see that they at least admit there's a problem, while Republicans will just be offering more of the same. Even McCain candidly admitted this a few days ago, saying if the "surge" isn't working come election day, "I'll lose."
While it's impossible to tell exactly where Iraq will be, or where the American public will be come November, just because the media has been ignoring the issue during the campaign season doesn't mean it's not still going to be an enormous issue in the election, one way or another.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com