Two possible futures for Iraq's struggle
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.Skip to next paragraph
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Two models, both based on Latin America's troubles with insurgencies, could provide some historical reference for the course Iraq will take.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.