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A Viable Exit Strategy for Iraq?
Armchair analyses, projections and conjectures aside, I often find it quite helpful in my own assessments to read Iraqi bloggers who enjoy an almost instinctive - and somewhat populist - nose for political truths in their own country...

16 September   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

...Last week, therefore, I decided it was time once more to feel the pulse of Iraq by reading some of those latest blogs that were published in the New York Times. The entries addressed manifold issues ranging from Iraqi refugees and daily life in the country to the observance of Ramadan and Iraqi governmental attempts to wrest control from the Sahwas - or Awakening Councils, a group of Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents who switched sides to fight al-Qa’eda with the backing of the US military. One blogger, for instance, was alarmed that the forced re-integration of those former Sunni militias into the state structures might not work out due to the virulent enmity between the Shi’i and Sunni factions and could eventually lead to more violence and terrorism. Another blogger complained that Iraqis are not observing Ramadan and are disrespecting the tenets of Islam during this holy month by eating, drinking and smoking instead of fasting. Yet another Baghdadi blogger lamented the harrowing difficulties of doing business in the country, and strongly recommended Iraqis in foreign countries not to “even think of coming back for a long, long time”. Finally, a blogger living outside the country wrote that refugees suffer hunger, poverty and lowliness in adjacent Arab countries and “are like orphans around mean peoples’ tables”.

Such deep-seated concerns prove that the country is still very much in a state of precarious flux - ‘ala kaf ‘afreet, to use the popular Arabic expression - and could simply tilt either way. As the outgoing General Petraeus indicated only this week, there are on the one hand signs that matters are improving solidly albeit painstakingly, whilst other contradictory signs underline a pulpy fragility that could easily sway once more toward more violence, mayhem and bloodshed. Either way, Iraq is still far from being new, let alone free or pluralistic, despite $656 billion that the US Administration has pumped into it to date.

The US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama claims he would withdraw combat forces from Iraq by 2010 and shift at least 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It is clear that a drawdown is essential. However, such any withdrawal should be responsible - gradual - in order to manage the shift in the nature of the military presence from combative to advisory, avoid a flare-up in violence and allow Iraqis themselves to settle their political divergences rather than relying upon foreign patrons.

And this remains the hub of the matter: Iraqi politicians should assume their collective responsibilities for the larger good of the federal - whole - country. There are already slim symptoms of some rebirth in nationalist pride and a welcome attempt by the government to extend its sovereignty. Whilst such positive signs peel back what is essentially an occupation, Iraqi parties should now conclude agreements on elections, oil revenues and disputed territories - and maybe spruce up their backyards.

What the US could do after the November elections and the installation of the new president is to start withdrawing troops - an imperative in order not to send the wrong signals to the Arab and Muslim worlds about Western political and economic designs - but by making it conditional upon progress toward political accommodation and improved governance.

Over and above those concerns, I also remain chary to some extent of the uncritical approach of some Iraqi officials to the oil rush by major Western oil companies such as Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Total, BP and Chevron vying to re-enter the Iraqi oil market. Iraq with its vast oil reserves could surely use the modern technology and skills on offer by these oil giants, especially since the UN sanctions and successive wars have badly eroded its industry. So I understand that government officials would exploit their lucrative oil deposits and aim to increase production from 2.5 million barrels of oil a day to 3 million barrels. After all, with oil selling at $100 a barrel today, it would provide the wherewithal to rebuild the industry. However, this should be done strictly according to the provisions of the Constitution and the long-overdue ratification of the petroleum laws - and not with a grab mentality that pillages the wealth of the country for univocal interests. Besides, one also has to be careful that such evolving deals do not rekindle the suspicion in Arab and Muslim minds that oil was indeed America’s sole reason for invading Iraq and fanning so much political dystrophy and resentment among its diverse religious and ethnic factions.

An exit strategy is long overdue. But to achieve such a strategy, responsibly, it is important for the Iraqi forces inside and outside the country to coalesce their efforts so they would ensure the prosperity, security and well-being of the whole country. Any other course of action is simply bound to unravel - as quickly as it is cobbled together - and that is one primary reason why Iraqis should ‘smell the coffee’, rally behind the public interest and address their realities collectively and consensually.

Iraq is certainly not the only country where overlapping interests overshadow each other. The world is perched on such global competition that is at times toxic. But the Iraqi bloggers’ write-ups alone show that there is so much at stake that it should not be very hard for Iraqis to rise above their factional interests, discard their enmities and aim for the larger good. Or is it?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   16 September


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