The International Crisis Group is a respected body of former presidents, ministers, and other decision-makers from the world's leading democracies. And today it issued a new report on the lessons of fratricidal violence among militias in the Iraqi port of Al-Basrah.
Peter Harling, ICG's senior analyst in the Middle East, worked in Iraq for seven years and is now based in Damascus. He presented the findings at London's Royal United Services Institute.
"We use this, the analysis of this dynamic, as a way of showing that Iraq's predicament now has much to do with the fact that we're facing a failed state which doesn't have the capacity to impose the rule of law, fair redistribution of resources," Harling told RFE/RL. "The political scene is actually dominated by armed Islamist parties fighting over local resources."
Harling explains that the report finds four major implications of the Al-Basrah situation applicable to the whole country.
Lessons From Al-Basrah
The first is that violence is multilayered and not solely the result of sectarianism and terrorism. There are also political killings and an ongoing vendetta among Islamist parties. And there is coercion of the local population, obliged to choose sides and seek protection from militias. This makes any three-way partition of Iraq impossible, the report says.
The second implication is that Al-Basrah shows that political actors operating through militias routinely resort to violence.
The third implication is that the answer to that problem cannot be bolstering existing political structures and treating political parties as partners, as the United States and Britain have been doing so far.
The last implication is that the supposedly more settled British dealings with locals in Al-Basrah make little difference, given the overarching dynamics.
Harling says leaders of the U.S.-led coalition should realize that the political parties that make up the Iraqi government are not building a democracy, but destroying what is left of one.
"The Baghdad government presents itself as a national-unity government," Harling says. "If it wants to deserve that label, it has to stand up to its responsibilities, which it hasn't been doing at all since the [security] surge has started [in February]. Very little has been done in terms of addressing the key causes of violence and, in particular, reaching out to the Sunni Arab population, taking into account its most legitimate demands."
The International Environment
At the same time, the Baghdad government must realize that the support and goodwill of the international community it relies on will not last forever. It must be told that it has got very little time left if it does not act, Harling says.
He concludes it's also useful to bear in mind that Iraq's neighbors -- predominantly Shi'ite Iran and predominantly Sunni Syria -- realize that they could end up at odds with one another if a conflict by proxy develops.
"There's a limit to how far they [Iran and Syria] are ready to go in terms of precipitating Iraq's breakup, which is not in their interest," Harling says. "So, I do believe that some dialogue and cooperation is possible with those actors, given how dire the situation on the ground has become."
Christopher Pang, head of Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute, says the ICG report correctly identifies the causes of why Al-Basrah has gone from a so-called oasis of calm to what it is today.
"It is often said that in the Iraq strategy there is no development without security and there is no security without development," Pang says. "I think the report highlights that for any strategy in Iraq to succeed to bring peace to the region, to quell the sectarian violence, it must address both policy options."
Can The Security Surge Work?
Pang stresses that the situations in Al-Basrah and Baghdad may not be comparable. He acknowledges that conditions in Baghdad are not yet conducive to the sort of negotiations that Iraq's government should be seen to be engaging in.
He says he does not, however, share the ICG report's pessimism because the current surge of thousands of additional U.S. troops could still work and push the Iraqi government into doing what it should have done earlier -- and what the report rightly deplores as lacking.
"The strategic rational behind the surge is to provide the Iraqi politicians with the appropriate breathing space so that they can undertake the required political negotiations on the critical issues that currently divide the country between Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'ite," Pang says. "These include issues such as the redistribution of wealth with respect to oil [and] issues about reconciliation."
Pang concludes that this is why he is optimistic the surge is the right strategy.
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SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.