In Iraq, All Terribly Familiar

By Chuck Hagel
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Last weekend, along with Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), I completed my fifth trip to Iraq, and I am frustrated and worried. We are still risking the lives of our troops without giving them a realistic policy worthy of their sacrifices. To me, as a Vietnam veteran, that feels terribly familiar.

If success were simply a matter of the determination and ability of U.S. troops and civil servants, we would have already created a secure and stable Iraq. But unfortunately, the reality is that after more than four years, America remains the country's occupying power. Iraq's future will be determined by Iraqis, who, I hope, will reach a political accommodation -- but America is still making the major decisions and taking the lead militarily in most critical areas of the country. We can continue to help buy time for the Iraqi government -- but that time is running out.

The signs are everywhere. Key Shiite leaders told me that they remain deeply skeptical of Sunni intentions. They derided as "appeasement" constructive attempts to reintegrate select ex-Baath Party officials into public life and the government. Shiite and Kurdish leaders openly suggested that Iraq simply pursue what's known as "the 80/20 solution" -- meaning that the Kurds and Shiites, who make up some 80 percent of the population, would run the country without regard for the minority Sunnis, who had grown accustomed to dominating Iraq. Almost no one in Baghdad was talking about using new provincial elections this year to help bring the Sunnis into the national government. The governor of Anbar province, al-Qaeda's base in Iraq, agreed that security had improved recently but raised concerns that his province still gets almost no assistance from the central government in Baghdad. That has left citizens in his province without jobs, electricity and potable water, even as open sewers spill filth into the streets.

There are important areas of progress in Iraq, and we should recognize them. In Anbar province, for example, U.S. military leaders highlighted the significant success they have had in lowering the number of attacks by al-Qaeda. The military has successfully engaged tribal leaders who have provided informal governance there for hundreds of years. The U.S. military has also succeeded in helping double the size of the Iraqi forces in the province. Whether this progress can be sustained or is temporary will be up to the Iraqis.

If the good news is mixed, the bad news is downright troubling. Within the past two weeks, hundreds of Iraqis were slaughtered in Baghdad, the Iraqi Parliament's cafeteria was hit by a suicide bomber, and a historic Baghdad bridge over the Tigris River was destroyed. Ominously, these increased acts of violence occurred in the area where the United States and Iraq have deployed 80,000 security forces.

So what do we do?

We must start by understanding what's really happening in Iraq. According to the National Intelligence Estimate released in February, the conflict has become a "self-sustaining inter-sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunnis" and also includes "extensive Shia-on-Shia violence." This means that Iraq is being consumed by sectarian warfare, much of it driven by Shiite or Sunni militias -- not al-Qaeda terrorists. Yes, there are admirers of Osama bin Laden in the country, including a full-blown al-Qaeda branch. But terrorists are not the core problem; Sunni-Shiite violence is. The Bush administration's rhetoric has not been nearly clear enough on this key point.

American occupation cannot stop a civil war in Iraq. Our military, superb as it is, can only do so much. The only lasting answer to Iraq's anguish will come from a political resolution. There will be no military solution in Iraq.

So how can America influence the Iraqis to reconcile their differences -- at least enough to form some kind of responsible government?

First, we must recognize that we have few good options in Iraq and that we are dealing with dynamics that lie mostly beyond our control.

Second, we must do all we can to encourage a comprehensive regional security framework, which includes engaging Syria and Iran. The regional security conference next month in Egypt is an opportunity we must not miss. We cannot solve the problems in Iraq by ourselves. We will have to work more closely with our Middle East allies than ever before, and that means addressing the nearly universal perception in the Middle East that we are imposing our will on the region for our own purposes.

To get more help from our regional friends, we must also have Middle Eastern countries see the Iraqi government as credible, not a U.S. puppet. And to get our regional strategy right, we must clearly recognize the depth of the Sunni-Shiite split and factor it into our Middle East policy and relationships. If we do not, the region could explode into ethnic and religious conflict.

Third, and closer to home, the administration and Congress must untangle themselves from the debate over funding our continued involvement in Iraq. The Iraqis must be jolted into understanding that America's continued commitment of troops and money is not open-ended. Significantly, American leaders in Iraq told me that they believed the debate on this issue in Congress had actually helped them get Iraqi leaders to grasp this point.

I do not like restricting our war policy with conditions or timelines. They are blunt instruments in an area of policy that requires flexibility. But they are some of the few levers Congress has when the majority of Congress and the American people have lost confidence in the president's policy.

We are at a crossroads at home. One option is that Congress can pass and the president can sign a war-funding bill that gives our troops the resources they need and places responsible conditions on that funding that will press the Iraqi government to perform and make the tough choices. President Bush should not see this as a threat from Congress but as a reasonable progression of events after four bloody and costly years.

The other option is that the president can veto the funding bill, Congress can overplay its hand, and both sides can get locked into a political standoff -- with U.S. troops caught in the middle. This would not produce constructive pressure on the Iraqi government to reconcile its differences, and it would ensure that the United States would remain trapped in Iraq, doing ever-greater damage to our force structure and military capabilities. The longer we are bogged down in Iraq, the more difficult and painful it will be to get out. And the deeper we are bogged down in Iraq, the fewer resources we have to devote to the many other important challenges facing America, especially in Afghanistan but also elsewhere around the globe and here at home.

If the war continues to lose support from the American people, the limited options we have today will vanish. The president will be left with a bitter few allies in our party, and we will be forced to withdraw from Iraq in a way that greatly damages U.S. interests in the Middle East and leaves the world far more dangerous than it is today. Forging a bipartisan consensus now that places responsible conditions on U.S. war funding could forestall a time when we have no options. The Baker-Hamilton report could have been the base for that bipartisan consensus.

I came home from my fifth trip to Iraq with one enduring impression. The Iraqi government must make the tough choices now to produce political reconciliation. If there is no such reconciliation in Iraq, there will be no progress -- no matter how many American lives we lose and how much American money we give. We will have squandered our resources and efforts, undermined our interests in the Middle East and, however unintentionally, produced a more dangerous world.

Chuck Hagel, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Nebraska.


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