The situation in Iraq is “no longer an insurgency or a counter insurgency, it’s a civil war,” said journalist Nir Rosen at a Center for American Progress event yesterday. Rosen has spent several years covering Iraq and the Middle East. Fighting and dying continue, even as U.S. commanders claim significant progress in Iraq. Worse still, the war in Iraq has shifted from a war against Al Qaeda to a “war of interest between Washington and Tehran,” according to Michael Ware, CNN’s correspondent in Baghdad.
The outlook for Iraq is bleak. “The violence is down,” Rosen said, “because there are fewer people to kill,” reflecting a “failure to protect the citizens of Iraq.” The decrease in violence is due to increased divisions between ethnic groups, which has also created a nation of ethnic and sectarian fiefdoms. “Now, I can be reasonably sure of my safety if I call the local warlord in advance,” Rosen said. That’s an improvement for the lives of citizens and travelers, but also a sign of the significant ethnic cleavages in the country.
These ethnic and sectarian divisions are significant and undermine the political legitimacy of the government. In fact, Ware says that in Iraq, “there is no such thing, in any true sense, as an Iraqi government.” After deliberately manufacturing a weak office of the prime minister and allowing local warlords to assemble militias, the United States has little ability to negotiate with a centrally controlled power. Iran is taking advantage of this situation, particularly through its ties to the Shia militias.
“Across the region, we see sectarianism increasing,” said Rosen, which will affect policy decisions toward Iraq. Jordan closed its border very early in the occupation, particularly as Shias attempted to flee the country; Syria, on the other hand, has a sympathetic relationship to the Sunni refugees. And Iran, Ware argues, “at least has a legitimate strategic investment in Iraq,” due to regional dynamics.
The U. S. strategy and goals in Iraq are at this point a mystery to many living in the region. Ware cautioned against the consequences of “employing people who your own president admits were members of Al Qaeda,” and Rosen said there is general confusion about long-term U.S. strategy. Concerns of skyrocketing oil prices, irreparable city-state divisions, increasing numbers of internally displaced Iraqis, and extended proxy war through Sunni and Shia militias all further contribute to the dismal view from the ground in Iraq.