Report: It's just grim all around

By Susan Taylor Martin
Published May 20, 2007

The big war-related news from London last week was that Prince Harry, an army officer, will not be going to Iraq. It seems that even the British-controlled south -- among the more stable areas of the country -- is too dangerous to risk an heir to the throne getting kidnapped or killed.

Unfortunately, the tizzy over Harry overshadowed a clear-eyed and sobering report on Iraq from London's Chatham House, formerly the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Among its conclusions:

- Iraq's social fabric "has been torn apart," and the country is arguably on the verge of being a failed state. The Bush administration's vaunted surge has had little effect on overall violence, and improvements in security could take years.

- There is not one civil war in Iraq but many civil wars and insurgencies involving various organizations and communities vying for power. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is only one of several "state-like actors, "and is "largely irrelevant" in big swaths of the country.

- Al-Qaida has a "very real presence in Iraq" that has spread to Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul and other major cities in the center and north. Although al-Qaida does not have universal support, "it is a mistake to exaggerate the ability of tribal groups and other insurgents to stop the momentum building behind its operations in Iraq."

- Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- Iraq's most powerful neighbors -- are better able than the United States and Britain to influence events in the country. And continued instability in Iraq is "not necessarily contrary" to the interests of the three regional powers.

The Chatham House report argues that the governments of President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have continually struggled to get a handle on Iraq, especially its ever-more complex political and social structures. That means the two allies have pursued strategies that "suit ideal depictions of what Iraq should look like but that are often out of touch with current situations."

Whether Blair and Bush have yet to accept reality is up for debate. At their final public appearance together at the White House on Thursday Blair resigns June 27, both said they had no regrets about the decision to go to war in 2003.

Though he paints a grim portrait of Iraq four years on, the author of the Chatham House report, Mideast expert Gareth Stansfield, says there are steps that could be taken to avert total collapse of the country.

Perhaps the most important is drafting an effective Petroleum Law, because the main bond holding Iraq together is its vast oil wealth. But Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites can't agree on whether control of the oil fields and distribution of oil revenues should rest with the central government in Baghdad (the Sunni preference) or with regional governments in the oil-rich Kurdish and Shiite areas.

As a result, negotiations over the Petroleum Law "have been characterized by mistrust, brinksmanship and, ultimately, failure," the report says.

Stansfield also argues that Muqtada al-Sadr -- usually described as a "firebrand Shiite cleric" in the Western media -- cannot be ignored given the growing popularity and radicalization of his Sadr Movement. As coalition troops target his forces, al-Sadr is being pushed into getting arms and financial support from Iran even though he remains at heart an Iraqi nationalist, Stansfield writes.

"If the U.S. and U.K. wish to maintain Shiite moderation in the face of devastating terrorist attacks, then the Sadr Movement needs to be recognized as a key and enduring feature of Iraq's political landscape which should be brought further into the political process."

One of the report's most disturbing sections deals with the "remarkable" change in content of the blogs and YouTube postings by Iraqis of Prince Harry's generation. Barely a year ago, they commonly talked about their hope that a genuinely Iraqi political process would emerge.

Now bloggers tend to fall into one of two categories: "They either wish the U.S. to stay in order to prevent the final collapse into a "total' civil war; or they wish the U.S. to leave in order to allow the civil war to erupt fully -- such is the level of sectarian-based hatred in Baghdad today."

There is much more in the Chatham House report, and I encourage you to read it in its 10-page entirety -- you can find it on the home page at www.chathamhouse.org.uk. Its title is succinct: "Accepting Realities in Iraq."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.