WASHINGTON — Beneath the day-to-day challenges that face Iraq, faint outlines are beginning to emerge of how the country might look after several key actions are taken over coming months - and depending on how Iraqis respond to them.
Two models, both based on Latin America's troubles with insurgencies, could provide some historical reference for the course Iraq will take.
Historical comparisons are rarely perfect, but two paths loom on the horizon. One follows Central America, where the civil conflicts of the 1980s played out and resulted in power-sharing accommodations and an acceptance of political competition. But another leads Iraq toward something like a new Colombia, where a hard core of the insurgency never wins but doesn't lose either, and is fueled by external forces that politics cannot address - making US disengagement problematic.
The key to determining which way Iraq goes may lie largely in how the Iraqi government addresses the minority Sunni population. In particular, analysts say, the government would do well to focus on the part of the Sunni population that is not yet bent on destroying the new Iraq, but that has not yet seen how its interests can be served by it, either.
"The three elements fueling the Iraqi insurgency are the hard-core Sunni Baathists, the foreign extremists, and the Sunni fence-sitters - the last being the largest of the three and probably the ones providing the largest number of recruits right now," says Michael O'Hanlon, an expert in US military affairs at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "In Central America, most of the people were these fence-sitters who could be swayed, and the result was basically political solutions."
Mr. O'Hanlon says that in some respects, the Central American conflicts might have seemed even more difficult to resolve politically, because the level of violence and displacement was even greater than what Iraq has experienced, at least to this point. But Central America also did not have an element equivalent to the foreign Islamic extremists, known as Jihadis or Jihadists for their interpretation of jihad as "holy war."
Of course, it may be that neither of Latin America's examples fit Iraq. A third option could be that Iraq descends into civil war and breaks up, but that is not something either a majority of Iraqis or outside powers want.
On the other hand Colombia, where civil conflict has raged for nearly five decades, continues to fight an insurgency that has replaced Marxism with drug trafficking and other forms of criminality as its reason for being. That has made negotiating a political settlement more difficult, as the Colombian government discovered in the 1990s.
"I'd say Iraq is somewhere between the two" cases of Central America and Colombia, says Amatzia Baram, a noted Iraq expert at the University of Haifa in Israel. While nothing like the "Jihadi" religious factor was present in Latin America, he says Iraq does have the factor of oil revenues, which is playing an incendiary role similar to that of drug money in Colombia.
Iraq's Sunnis "are accustomed to controlling this fabulous source of income, and now suddenly they lose it all," Mr. Baram says. "The money has to be addressed, and the Sunnis have to be assured that they are not going to be excluded from sharing in oil revenues."
Other experts say that Iraq is similar to Colombia in the key role that criminal gangs play in Iraq and the profits they are amassing from such activities as kidnapping and smuggling - often in conjunction with the insurgency.
One reason that addressing the concerns of the "fence-sitter" Sunnis is so important is the role they play in keeping the Islamist extremists going. Experts point out, for example, that Iraq suffered 135 bombings in April - and they add that the logistics to accomplish that could not be provided by foreigners alone.
"We know the Jihadis are receiving some logistical support from the Sunni Arab population because of the common religiosity," says Patrick Lang, a Middle East specialist formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Bombings that continue to hit civilian targets could loosen that bond, he says, but the government also has to reach out to the more "nationalistic" elements of the Sunni population.
"Many of these Sunnis that can still be swayed one way or the other are waiting to see how the government reacts to them raising the stakes," Mr. Lang says. He notes, however, that most of the Sunnis included in the government so far were longtime exiles and that only two Sunnis have been included in the 55-member constitution-writing committee. "So far the response is not too impressive," he says.
The Central American conflicts are instructive, Lang says, in that they were resolved through "political compromise" and elections accepted as legitimate.
That's why drawing in the Sunni population now is so important. Not only are new national elections set for December, but the new constitution, which is supposed to be completed by August, also must pass a national referendum. If three provinces vote "no," the constitution fails - and Sunnis predominate in three provinces, experts note.
Experts also point out that outside forces were instrumental in pressuring Central Americans to compromise and end their conflicts. The US role in Iraq is delicate - especially with the Sunnis, since US action ended their long reign.
A desire to see Iraq's government more widely accepted as sovereign is one reason the United States adopted a hands-off approach as Iraqi leaders struggled to form a government. But such worries have been replaced by an overriding need to have the government take steps to address the insurgency, experts say.
"The US hasn't wanted to look like we're running the show, especially when that perception has fired up the insurgency, but we also don't want the government taking actions that deepen the cleavages," says O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "Right now the greater need is to see the government taking steps that can quell the insurgency and not incite it."