Keywords: Iraq; John Burns; Joe Biden; Baghdad; Sunni; Shia; Kurds; federal government.
I just shrug. There’s no answer and I’ve stopped thinking about what to do.
But of course, one cannot shrug indefinitely. Political decisions have to be made about Iraq. I watched two interviews today about the country's future — one by Charlie Rose interviewing the New York Times’ Baghdad correspondent John Burns, and the other by Judy Woodruff interviewing Senator Joe Biden on the Lehrer New Hour.
John Burns (see the photo – he’s the one with the gorgeous curly locks) is the more pessimistic of the two. Basically he says that if the US troopsare removed anytime soon, there will be catastrophic massacres that dwarf any of the violence we are seeing now. He is not calling for the troops to stay, though, but is only pointing out what he claims is the prevailing opinion among Iraqis. You have to calaculate the costs, which are going to be horrible, no matter what. The Shia in the south will have the upper hand in government, and they also have control of most of the oil wells. But they are divided among themselves about their relationship to Iran. The Sunni will not go quietly. It’s a question whether they could be induced just to take Anbar province and be quiet; Burns doesn’t think they will. And, he says, the only people talking about dividing the country into three parts are the Americans. The Iraqi people hate the idea.
The only hope he sees is that some of the politicians are beginning to take seriously the possibility that the US Congress will actually succeed in getting the troops withdrawn. Until now, they haven’t believed the US would do so, but now one of them, when assured that it was a real possibility, replied, “Then we will be slaughtered.” That prospect may, Burns thinks, convince these groups that they had better start working out a deal among themselves to prevent such an outcome.
Biden took a different line. He says the present Iraq constitutionspecifies that the country is to be a decentralized federal system, but that nevertheless Al-Maliki and his followers keep trying to make a strong centralized government. They can’t. It will never happen. But if the constitution is actually implemented, with three different regions having constitutions of their own that give them control over local matters, it may be possible for the political crisis to simmer down enough so that, eventually (and he didn’t say when) the US troops could be withdrawn. In the shorter term, these troops could be reduced in number.
He wasn’t saying that there would be three different independent countries, but one decentralized federal one. But he also wasn’t clear about what would have to happen to get this federal system up and running. Yes, Maliki would have to be forced, but it is not clear how. And surely more than that would need to happen. Biden was not optimistic, exactly, but he sounded more so than Burns.
So what conclusions can I draw? I don’t think the US population will accept the present role of their armed forces in Iraq much longer. By March there will be a draw-down of forces beginning. It is hard to believe that Biden’s scenario could be realized in time for them to begin withdrawing in an orderly way without leaving the place open to further chaos. Burns must be closer to an accurate predictor than Biden, however much I wish otherwise..