J. Hiltermann: Surge may keep Iraq “stable” till US elections but policy leads to more violent civil war


Story Transcript

VOICE OF CARLO BASILONE, PRESENTER: US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an unannounced visit to Iraq this weekend to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and other senior officials. Despite renewed attacks this weekend that killed at least 53 people, the Bush administration continues to insist that the surge is responsible for the overall reduction in violence in Iraq. The Real News spoke with Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

JOOST HILTERMANN, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP, MIDDLE EAST PROGRAM: Well, I think that, yes, the military surge, the extra deployment of troops in Baghdad and some other parts of Iraq has had a real impact on the ground. It has had both a direct impact by pushing back al-Qaeda, which was operating in these areas, and an indirect impact by forcing other actors to take certain evasive action, and that in turn has led, again, other actors to step forward and to start fighting really on the side of the United States. And together this has created a situation that is far from stable, far from peaceful, but it is better than what we had a year ago. And the real problem is that, yes, we’ve seen this military progress, but it is not sustainable unless there is also progress on the political front. And, unfortunately, on that score we’ve seen very little.

BASILONE: These other actors—who are we speaking of?

HILTERMANN: Well, the surge was targeting in particular the group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is basically now an Iraqi group with foreign leadership and with some foreign jihadis coming in to blow themselves up. That is on the Sunni side. And then on the Shiite side, the group known as the Mahdi Army, operating under the Sadrist movement. And they are representing, essentially, the Shiite underclass and underemployed urban Shiite youth. And these two groups were specifically targeted. Al-Qaeda fought back. The Sadrists decided to lie low. And so the fight we’ve seen and that’s continuing until today is really mostly between the United States and the al-Qaeda group. Now, these other actors that have come up as an indirect result of this surge are the so-called awakening councils and concerned citizen groups in Baghdad neighborhoods. And they have joined forces with the United States to oust al-Qaeda in Iraq from their territory and from Iraq eventually, and they are now securing Sunni-dominated neighborhoods and mixed neighborhoods where the Sunnis have a major presence in Baghdad and around Baghdad.

BASILONE: They’re strictly Sunni, though. And the Shiites already had those kind of groups?

HILTERMANN: Well, see, the Shiites, they have—well, this is the Sadrists, of course, and they have taken control over a number of Baghdad neighborhoods, including mixed neighborhoods. They are now being pushed back from the mixed neighborhoods and are consolidating their control over sort of strictly Shiite neighborhoods. And there is the Supreme Council, which is the militia-based group that came in from Iran in 2003. These are Iraqis, though, and they are very powerful. They have ensconced themselves in government and in the security forces. And so they’re essentially operating in the uniforms of the Iraqi security forces.

BASILONE: These Sunni groups—vigilante groups or whatever they may be—are they becoming legitimized? Will they be wearing uniforms? Are they wearing uniforms? Will they be part of the Iraqi police and army?

HILTERMANN: Well, this is the $5 million question, because if they don’t, then all we have done in the past year, or all the United States has done, is to train, equip, fund one side in a civil war, the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, while of course they continue to build the Iraqi security forces, which is the other side in the civil war, ’cause they’re dominated by the Shiite militias. What ought to happen is the gradual incorporation of these Sunni militias into the security apparatus of the Iraqi state. But that is a very difficult process. It’s being resisted by the Iraqi government because it’s controlled by Shiite militias. And so this is going to be extremely difficult. And if it fails, then we may be back to square one, but, as I said, with actors that are better armed and equipped than before.

BASILONE: And so the chances of a civil war then aren’t gone.

HILTERMAN: The chances of a re-escalation of the civil war are quite significant, but it’s mostly because I don’t see any real energy being exerted by the Bush administration to bring about these political deals. I think the Bush administration is quite content if the situation remains relatively stable through the surge until the November elections, and then it’s, you know, après moi le deluge. And so whoever comes to the White House, Democrat or Republican, will inherit the mess that will be unleashed once American forces start to draw down, as eventually they must. The key is to bring some kind of political accommodation at the top, and this is where we just have seen no real progress.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Joost Hiltermann

Joost Hiltermann is the Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group. He writes policy-focused reports on the factors that increase the risk of and drive armed conflict. His specialty is the crisis in Iraq.