If America Left Iraq
The case for cutting and running
12/10/05 "Atlantic Monthly
" -- -- At some point—whether sooner or later—U.S. troops will leave Iraq. I have spent much of the occupation
reporting from Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul, Fallujah, and elsewhere in the country, and I can tell you that a growing majority
of Iraqis would like it to be sooner. As the occupation wears on, more and more Iraqis chafe at its failure to provide stability
or even electricity, and they have grown to hate the explosions, gunfire, and constant war, and also the daily annoyances:
having to wait hours in traffic because the Americans have closed off half the city; having to sit in that traffic behind
a U.S. military vehicle pointing its weapons at them; having to endure constant searches and arrests. Before the January 30
elections this year the Association of Muslim Scholars—Iraq's most important Sunni Arab body, and one closely tied to
the indigenous majority of the insurgency—called for a commitment to a timely U.S. withdrawal as a condition for its
participation in the vote. (In exchange the association promised to rein in the resistance.) It's not just Sunnis who have
demanded a withdrawal: the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is immensely popular among the young and the poor, has made
a similar demand. So has the mainstream leader of the Shiites' Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdel Aziz
al-Hakim, who made his first call for U.S. withdrawal as early as April 23, 2003.
If the people the U.S. military is ostensibly protecting want it to go, why do the soldiers stay? The most common answer
is that it would be irresponsible for the United States to depart before some measure of peace has been assured. The American
presence, this argument goes, is the only thing keeping Iraq from an all-out civil war that could take millions of lives and
would profoundly destabilize the region. But is that really the case? Let's consider the key questions surrounding the prospect
of an imminent American withdrawal.
Would the withdrawal of U.S. troops ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites?
No. That civil war is already under way—in large part because of the American presence. The longer the United
States stays, the more it fuels Sunni hostility toward Shiite "collaborators." Were America not in Iraq, Sunni leaders could
negotiate and participate without fear that they themselves would be branded traitors and collaborators by their constituents.
Sunni leaders have said this in official public statements; leaders of the resistance have told me the same thing in private.
The Iraqi government, which is currently dominated by Shiites, would lose its quisling stigma. Iraq's security forces, also
primarily Shiite, would no longer be working on behalf of foreign infidels against fellow Iraqis, but would be able to function
independently and recruit Sunnis to a truly national force. The mere announcement of an intended U.S. withdrawal would allow
Sunnis to come to the table and participate in defining the new Iraq.
But if American troops aren't in Baghdad, what's to stop the Sunnis from launching an assault and seizing control of
Sunni forces could not mount such an assault. The preponderance of power now lies with the majority Shiites and the Kurds,
and the Sunnis know this. Sunni fighters wield only small arms and explosives, not Saddam's tanks and helicopters, and are
very weak compared with the cohesive, better armed, and numerically superior Shiite and Kurdish militias. Most important,
Iraqi nationalism—not intramural rivalry—is the chief motivator for both Shiites and Sunnis. Most insurgency groups
view themselves as waging a muqawama—a resistance—rather than a jihad. This is evident in their
names and in their propaganda. For instance, the units commanded by the Association of Muslim Scholars are named after the
1920 revolt against the British. Others have names such as Iraqi Islamic Army and Flame of Iraq. They display the Iraqi flag
rather than a flag of jihad. Insurgent attacks are meant primarily to punish those who have collaborated with the Americans
and to deter future collaboration.
Wouldn't a U.S. withdrawal embolden the insurgency?
No. If the occupation were to end, so, too, would the insurgency. After all, what the resistance movement has been resisting
is the occupation. Who would the insurgents fight if the enemy left? When I asked Sunni Arab fighters and the clerics who
support them why they were fighting, they all gave me the same one-word answer: intiqaam—revenge. Revenge for
the destruction of their homes, for the shame they felt when Americans forced them to the ground and stepped on them, for
the killing of their friends and relatives by U.S. soldiers either in combat or during raids.
But what about the foreign jihadi element of the resistance? Wouldn't it be empowered by a U.S.
The foreign jihadi element—commanded by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—is numerically insignificant;
the bulk of the resistance has no connection to al-Qaeda or its offshoots. (Zarqawi and his followers have benefited greatly
from U.S. propaganda blaming him for all attacks in Iraq, because he is now seen by Arabs around the world as more powerful
than he is; we have been his best recruiting tool.) It is true that the Sunni resistance welcomed the foreign fighters (and
to some extent still do), because they were far more willing to die than indigenous Iraqis were. But what Zarqawi wants fundamentally
conflicts with what Iraqi Sunnis want: Zarqawi seeks re-establishment of the Muslim caliphate and a Manichean confrontation
with infidels around the world, to last until Judgment Day; the mainstream Iraqi resistance just wants the Americans out.
If U.S. forces were to leave, the foreigners in Zarqawi's movement would find little support—and perhaps significant
animosity—among Iraqi Sunnis, who want wealth and power, not jihad until death. They have already lost much of
their support: many Iraqis have begun turning on them. In the heavily Shia Sadr City foreign jihadis had burning tires
placed around their necks. The foreigners have not managed to establish themselves decisively in any large cities. Even at
the height of their power in Fallujah they could control only one neighborhood, the Julan, and they were hated by the city's
resistance council. Today foreign fighters hide in small villages and are used opportunistically by the nationalist resistance.
When the Americans depart and Sunnis join the Iraqi government, some of the foreign jihadis in Iraq may try to continue
the struggle—but they will have committed enemies in both Baghdad and the Shiite south, and the entire Sunni triangle
will be against them. They will have nowhere to hide. Nor can they merely take their battle to the West. The jihadis
need a failed state like Iraq in which to operate. When they leave Iraq, they will be hounded by Arab and Western security
What about the Kurds? Won't they secede if the United States leaves?
Yes, but that's going to happen anyway. All Iraqi Kurds want an independent Kurdistan. They do not feel Iraqi. They've
effectively had more than a decade of autonomy, thanks to the UN-imposed no-fly zone; they want nothing to do with the chaos
that is Iraq. Kurdish independence is inevitable—and positive. (Few peoples on earth deserve a state more than the Kurds.)
For the moment the Kurdish government in the north is officially participating in the federalist plan—but the Kurds
are preparing for secession. They have their own troops, the peshmerga, thought to contain 50,000 to 100,000 fighters.
They essentially control the oil city of Kirkuk. They also happen to be the most America-loving people I have ever met; their
leaders openly seek to become, like Israel, a proxy for American interests. If what the United States wants is long-term bases
in the region, the Kurds are its partners.
Would Turkey invade in response to a Kurdish secession?
For the moment Turkey is more concerned with EU membership than with Iraq's Kurds—who in any event have expressed
no ambitions to expand into Turkey. Iraq's Kurds speak a dialect different from Turkey's, and, in fact, have a history of
animosity toward Turkish Kurds. Besides, Turkey, as a member of NATO, would be reluctant to attack in defiance of the United
States. Turkey would be satisfied with guarantees that it would have continued access to Kurdish oil and trade and that Iraqi
Kurds would not incite rebellion in Turkey.
Would Iran effectively take over Iraq?
No. Iraqis are fiercely nationalist—even the country's Shiites resent Iranian meddling. (It is true that some Iraqi
Shiites view Iran as an ally, because many of their leaders found safe haven there when exiled by Saddam—but thousands
of other Iraqi Shiites experienced years of misery as prisoners of war in Iran.) Even in southeastern towns near the border
I encountered only hostility toward Iran.
What about the goal of creating a secular democracy in Iraq that respects the rights of women and non-Muslims?
Give it up. It's not going to happen. Apart from the Kurds, who revel in their secularism, Iraqis overwhelmingly seek a
Muslim state. Although Iraq may have been officially secular during the 1970s and 1980s, Saddam encouraged Islamism during
the 1990s, and the difficulties of the past decades have strengthened the resurgence of Islam. In the absence of any other
social institutions, the mosques and the clergy assumed the dominant role in Iraq following the invasion. Even Baathist resistance
leaders told me they have returned to Islam to atone for their sins under Saddam. Most Shiites, too, follow one cleric or
another. Ayatollah al-Sistani—supposedly a moderate—wants Islam to be the source of law. The invasion of Iraq
has led to a theocracy, which can only grow more hostile to America as long as U.S. soldiers are present. Does Iraqi history
offer any lessons?
The British occupation of Iraq, in the first half of the twentieth century, may be instructive. The British faced several
uprisings and coups. The Iraqi government, then as now, was unable to suppress the rebels on its own and relied on the occupying
military. In 1958, when the government the British helped install finally fell, those who had collaborated with them could
find no popular support; some, including the former prime minister Nuri Said, were murdered and mutilated. Said had once been
a respected figure, but he became tainted by his collaboration with the British. That year, when revolutionary officers overthrew
the government, Said disguised himself as a woman and tried to escape. He was discovered, shot in the head, and buried. The
next day a mob dug up his corpse and dragged it through the street—an act that would be repeated so often in Iraq that
it earned its own word: sahil. With the British-sponsored government gone, both Sunni and Shiite Arabs embraced the
Iraqi identity. The Kurds still resent the British perfidy that made them part of Iraq.
What can the United States do to repair Iraq?
There is no panacea. Iraq is a destroyed and fissiparous country. Iranians and Saudis I've spoken to worry that it might
be impossible to keep Iraq from disintegrating. But they agree that the best hope of avoiding this scenario is if the United
States leaves; perhaps then Iraqi nationalism will keep at least the Arabs united. The sooner America withdraws and allows
Iraqis to assume control of their own country, the better the chances that Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari won't face sahil.
It may be decades before Iraq recovers from the current maelstrom. By then its borders may be different, its vaunted secularism
a distant relic. But a continued U.S. occupation can only get in the way.
Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation, spent sixteen months reporting from Iraq after the American
invasion. His book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq will be published in February.
Copyright © 2005 by The Atlantic Monthly Group
Information Clearing House