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Washington’s Continuing Debate on Iraq

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The report by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) formalizes in a single document views and realities known for a long time, which many officials have voiced publicly and others privately due to the fear of political retribution.   The report is devoid of the political rhetoric and grand-standing that marked the months and weeks leading up to the recent Congressional elections.

The report will clearly serve as the main point of reference for the new Democratic Congress and disenchanted Republicans and provide the necessary political cover for those who feared being labeled "unpatriotic" for criticism of current Iraq policy.  The document is clearly not a road-map for "success" but a realistic assessment of possible options in the midst of dire circumstances in a rapidly deteriorating, vicious downward cycle of violence.

For some, the report's pursuit of achieving a bipartisan consensus sacrificed the need for a more critical report with a harder edge.   However, the commission's original intent was to be forward-looking with practical recommendations and avoid partisan bickering, hence the timing of its release after the mid-term elections.

The intent of the White House to take the ISG's recommendations very seriously will be tempered by its desire to wait for the release in the coming weeks of two other reports from the Pentagon and the National Security Council.   Therefore, the announcement of significant changes to current Iraq policy should not be expected until all the reports are simultaneously in the public arena.   Whichever, if any, eventual changes are made is likely to result from a selective process of cherry-picking from the three reports that strikes a balance and best reflects President Bush's  ideological convictions while taking into account certain irrefutable realities on the ground.  Potentially greater deference to the Pentagon and NSC reports should not be surprising.

The ISG  report focuses (a) on the need for the US to assume an increasingly supporting role to a more assertive and pro-active Iraqi security force, (b) stresses the necessity for more effective reconciliation efforts by the current Iraqi government and (c) calls for a greater US diplomatic regional initiative to engage Iraq's neighbors, principally Syria and Iran to address challenges in Iraq and the broader Middle East

Although some Iraqi security forces are operationally capable, most lack sufficient combat effectiveness to engage in self-sustaining action.   Claims that the current Iraqi government can assume control of its forces by mid-2007 are simply unrealistic to say the least.

Few will disagree that the only solution to the chaos in Iraq is ultimately through the political process.  Even fewer will disagree that the current government's greatest challenge has been on the political front.  Trying to achieve reconciliation has been nearly impossible in an environment marked by lack of trust, corruption, infighting, ineptitude, incompetence, gridlock and paralysis.   While each faction pursues its own short-term interest, the already weak foundations of the current government continue to erode rapidly.

Although greater US diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran could potentially yield some political dividends within the broader Middle East, it would be misleading to think that it could drastically alter the situation specifically in Iraq in the short-term.  Despite the role of Iran and Syria in supporting militant groups to whatever arguable extent, they do not directly dominate the numerous militant groups.   Even factional leaders, such as Moqtada Al Sadr, do not fully control the militias, particularly at the local level.  The factional leaders may be able to influence their activities, but this ability is decreasing considerably with the exponential increase of chaos, violence and radicalization at the grass-roots.

Furthermore, the desire of the current Iraqi government to seize the diplomatic initiative with its neighbors (as evidence by the visit of the Iraqi President to Iran and Iraq's restoration of formal diplomatic relations with Syria after decades) may complement US efforts within Iraq but complicate US interests within the broader Middle East (specifically with respect to Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine).   Although Iran, Syria and other regional powers have their own short-term interests in Iraq, all share a common long-term interest for regional stability and preventing spill-over of the conflict and chaos.

In conclusion, the debate revolving around the ISG report (and the two upcoming NSC and Pentagon reports) will ultimately have a greater impact on developments in Washington and less in Baghdad.  The independent, irrational and unpredictable dynamic determining the course of events on the ground in Iraq is comfortably accelerating at its own pace while the Washington debate continues to fall increasingly behind the curve.

Marco Vicenzino is the founder and Executive Director of the Global Strategy Project and served as Deputy Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US (IISS-US) in Washington DC . He is a graduate of Oxford University and Georgetown University Law Center and has taught International Law at the School of International Service of American University. He has provided commentary on BBC World, CNN International, CNN Spanish, Fox News and Al Jazeera and is a regular guest speaker at conferences around the world.   He can be contacted at msv@globalsp.org

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