Dedication and Danger in Iraq

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By Joseph E. Robert Jr.
Saturday, April 29, 2006

I've had the opportunity to travel to Iraq three times, most recently last month, courtesy of the nonpartisan Business Executives for National Security. On every trip I'm struck by the difference between the Iraq I hear and read about back home and the Iraq I see in person. Iraq defies expectations and easy definition.

For me as a business executive, these visits provide a firsthand look at the largest U.S. reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan. As the father of a Marine who recently returned from a tour in Iraq, I find that these trips also offer a glimpse of our frontline troops that few military families ever see. Among my general impressions:

First, U.S. forces in Iraq remain focused on their mission. Talking with soldiers and Marines over dinner in their mess halls, it's easy to see why reenlistment rates among U.S. troops in Iraq are the highest in the military. These men and women understand their mission and believe they are making a difference. Like my son, Joe III, after he returned from a tough mission in Fallujah, the Marines I met said they would be happy to return to Iraq because they believe what they're doing is important.

Second, every Iraqi knows that the battle for their country will be won or lost by Iraqis, not Americans. Fears of an all-out civil war were palpable during my visit. The day before I arrived, attacks on crowded markets in Baghdad's Sadr City killed dozens of Shiites. Dozens of bodies, mostly of blindfolded, bound and executed Sunnis, have turned up in the streets. But despite the ensuing violence, U.S. and Iraqi military leaders called the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra a defining moment for the fledgling Iraqi army. In the Abu Ghraib region outside Baghdad, a Shiite commander claimed that "sectarian divisions are exaggerated" and said that local Sunnis are more supportive since his largely Shiite troops prevented further violence after the mosque bombing.

Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's interim vice president and a leader of the largest Shiite party, told me that he hoped the Samarra bombing and its violent aftermath could be a "turning point" that promotes dialogue and reinforces national unity. Indeed, after a four-month stalemate, the selection of Jawad al-Maliki as Iraq's prime minister is being greeted as a real chance for national reconciliation. Every Iraqi leader I met with -- including outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, former prime minister Ayad Allawi and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi -- said that the Iraqi people's desire for a common future will avert a civil war.

Third, dangerous failures in Iraq's economic reconstruction are undermining progress on the security and political fronts. U.S. commanders are the first to admit that this war will not be won by the military alone. "You are not going to shoot yourself out of this problem," says Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of daily operations in Iraq. Of the estimated $300 billion spent by Washington so far in Iraq, just $21 billion has been allocated for reconstruction, and perhaps half this amount has been redirected to pressing security needs. U.S. funding, which runs out this year just as a new Iraqi government will need to show tangible economic progress, is a small fraction of the estimated $70 billion to $100 billion that Iraqi reconstruction may ultimately require.

This strategic failure is a direct result of something else I observed: Only one element of the U.S. government -- the military -- seems to be treating Iraq as "the vital national interest" that President Bush declares it to be. Across Iraq, military personnel are heroically managing local reconstruction and development projects for which they lack the proper training or tools. Meanwhile, back in the Green Zone, hundreds of civilian positions -- from the departments of State, Justice, Commerce and Agriculture -- go unfilled.

U.S. commanders expressed frustration that dozens of Justice Department billets sit empty despite Iraq's urgent need for help in developing a functioning judicial system. American troops like my son describe risking their lives to arrest suspected insurgents, testifying in Iraqi courts and then watching in frustration as the offenders are tossed back on the streets. In government, as in business, refusing to devote the resources and personnel to a strategic priority is a recipe for disaster.

Unlike the military, civilian agencies will never be able to forcibly deploy their personnel to foreign trouble spots. But through a combination of rewards (promotions) and punishments (less desirable assignments, termination), agencies could more effectively support the critical political and economic efforts that will determine Iraq's fate.

My flight out of Baghdad was a somber one. Our C-130 cargo plane bore the flag-draped coffin of an American soldier killed helping the Iraqi people defend themselves against a vicious insurgency. Back home, as the election-year debate over Iraq rages on, I think about that soldier's sacrifice and recall a final impassioned plea from an Iraqi general named Aziz: "Iraqi troops will finish this job; we will kill this insurgency. But please tell the American people and President Bush that America cannot withdraw before the Iraqi troops are ready. We can't stand alone yet. We need more time."

Nothing in history is inevitable; events unfold as they do because leaders and their publics make choices. Neither civil war nor a democratic, pluralist government is predestined for Iraq. But one fact is clear: Premature withdrawal of U.S. forces -- before Iraqi troops are ready, or before the political and economic situation stabilizes -- will condemn Iraq and the region to a future of chaos, destruction and death.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of J.E. Robert Companies, a global commercial real estate and mortgage investment firm based in McLean.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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