Is Iraq Safe Yet?


Mar 5, 2009

The Obama administration's decision to withdraw the bulk of United Sates troops from Iraq over the next 19 months has sparked fears that Iraq will once again plunge into the wide-scale and debilitating violence that it endured from 2004 to 2007. Those fears are, for the most part, overblown. There are good reasons to believe that the level of stability achieved in Iraq can be maintained even without a large-scale US presence.

To understand why, it is important to know what else was going on inside Iraq in 2007, when President George W. Bush ordered the "surge" of 20,000 additional troops and General David H. Petraeus shifted US forces to a more aggressive strategy. For, although the surge was important, two other factors played a critical role in bringing Iraq back from the brink.

First, Baghdad had been transformed into a Shiite-dominated city. Although exact statistics are hard to come by, in 2003 approximately 35% of Baghdad's population was Sunni. Today, based upon the results of the recently held regional election, Baghdad is only 10% to 15% Sunni. This means that between one million and 1.5 million Sunnis have fled the capital. Most now are refugees in Jordan and Syria, and they are unlikely to be welcomed home anytime soon by the new Shiite elite running the country.

The ethnic cleansing of many Baghdad neighborhoods in 2006 and 2007 was deplorable. But it made it difficult for Sunni insurgents to hide or blend in with the population, and deprived them of logistical and financial support. It also provided a degree of safety and security for the Shiite-led government, which was largely the purpose of the well-organized campaign in the first place.

The second critical factor in stabilizing Iraq was its regional neighbors' recognition of, and in some cases support for, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. This was a major change from the 2003-2005 period, when Iraq's Sunni neighbors, fearing the country's new Shiite elite, actively opposed the US occupation.

The multiple insurgencies that developed in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 were supported at least in part by money, materiel, and fighters from abroad. Suicide bombers from all over the Arab world crossed into the country through the porous Syrian and Jordanian borders. Regional governments may not have openly supported the insurgents, but they clearly avoided cracking down on the jihadist groups operating within their borders.

Foreign governments began to change these polities after al-Qaeda in Iraq bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005, killing 60 people. Frightened governments in the region realized that the type of violence occurring almost daily in Iraq was starting to spill across the country's borders.

Soon after this incident, the highly effective Jordanian intelligence service began assisting the Iraqi government in going after the al-Qaeda network in Iraq. By June 2006, this effort was paying off. Jordanian agents were instrumental in providing the intelligence that enabled US forces to kill Abu Zarqawi, the mastermind of the Amman bombing.

Slowly but surely, throughout 2006 and 2007, Jordanian intelligence, working with Iraqi Sunni tribes, chipped away at al-Qaeda. Moreover, quiet efforts were made in the Arab world to curtail the recruitment and funding of suicide bombers headed to Iraq.

Iran's role in Iraq also changed. The Iranian government had been a major backer of Shiite militia groups, including the Mahdi Army, led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But the Iranians also had close ties from the beginning with elements of the Shiite-led coalition government. In 2008, following Maliki's military operation to clean out militia groups in Basra, Iran's leaders seem to have decided that this two-faced strategy had run its course.

Iran then helped broker a ceasefire that was highly favorable to Maliki, and cemented his commanding position inside the Iraqi coalition government. No doubt Maliki's hard-line stance on the need for a firm timetable for the withdrawal of US troops was critical to Iran's decision to throw its weight behind him.

Both the transformation of Baghdad into a Shiite city and the recognition and support of Iraq's neighbors for the country's new political order have been instrumental in stabilizing the country. These changes are likely to be permanent, and offer hope that the wide-scale violence that afflicted the country between 2003 and 2007 will not return after US forces depart.

Lowell Schwartz, is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think-tank based in Santa Monica, California.

This op-ed originally appeared on

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