There is one cliché about the killing field that is US-occupied Iraq that rings true. There is no “good option,” no magic wand that will make the violence bedeviling the country disappear. The question ought to be which of the bad options offers the best hope for achieving a sovereign Iraq with a minimum of additional suffering for the Iraqi people.
Asking that question means examining the assumptions behind President George W. Bush’s vow to keep US troops in Iraq until “the Iraqis are able to take the fight to the enemy” — that is to say, indefinitely. Leaving aside the unspoken US strategic goals served by a prolonged military presence in Iraq, and leaving aside the tremendous violence visited upon Iraq by the US itself, there are three flaws in the spoken logic of what Bush says is the best of the bad options available to him.
If US soldiers are providing security in Iraq, then why is the heavily patrolled road leading from Baghdad to the airport, and the US Army’s Camp Victory, still the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country? The logical answer is that US patrols attract rather than deter violent attacks. The Pentagon’s recently announced plan to consolidate the once rumored 14 “enduring bases” in Iraq into four “contingency operating bases” away from major population centers sounds like what the military calls a force protection measure.
The US presence obviously is not protecting the hundreds of Iraqi police and national guard recruits who have been slaughtered as they stand in line to sign up. Nor are the Marines keeping Iraqi civilians safe, even on the occasions when they now deploy in force to do so. On the day of the Iraqi elections, when the most unexcitable journalists in Baghdad marveled at the effectiveness of US security measures, the Defense Intelligence Agency recorded almost 300 attacks that killed 46 Iraqis. Note how lonely are the voices who now seriously argue that the US should send more soldiers so as to better protect the civilian population. Far too many Iraqis now know US troops as bulldozers of Falluja, trigger-happy guards at checkpoints and torturers at Abu Ghraib.
Second, US occupation is a potent force generating opposition to the post-Saddam political order. What sincere efforts the victors in the Iraqi elections have exerted to include those who boycotted the elections in the government have foundered because the boycotters demand a timetable for the departure of foreign forces. The tentative agreement of Sunni Arab opposition groups to participate in the constitution-drafting process was brokered by Shi‘i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is trusted by the boycotters because of his vocal opposition to occupation.
Last but not least, the heavy US troop presence encourages the very zero-sum sectarian politics that we are warned would paralyze Iraq if the US “cuts and runs.” Indiscriminate raids and detentions in the “Sunni triangle” have not only bred more anti-occupation guerrillas, but also encouraged Sunni Arabs to organize as Sunni Arabs as the Iraqi government fails to restrain US military action. The Shi‘i religious parties in the transitional government do not demand a withdrawal because their US backing affords them time to entrench their political power and, through the Interior Ministry, a grip on the coercive apparatus of the renascent Iraqi state. In the late spring came convincing allegations that Interior Ministry men have staged assassinations of Sunni Arab imams, some in reprisal for killings of Shi‘i clerics. The US inches closer and closer to backing one side in an Iraqi civil war.
There is no panacea for the ills that afflict today’s Iraq. Neither sectarian conflicts nor Baathist revanchism nor acts of terrorism would necessarily vanish if there were no US occupying soldiers. But a continued US military presence cannot eliminate any of these dangers to Iraq’s future. It can only sharpen them.
US occupation is a major cause of the violence plaguing Iraq — not the only cause, but definitely not the cure. Washington should announce a withdrawal of US troops on a timetable to begin forthwith. This is the option likely to lead to the least violence and the most democracy in the long run.