How will the Iraq war end?
On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, progress is slow but violence is down. A three-part series on the war's effects starts today with a look at what the endgame might look like.
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Of the misjudgments made by the US prior to its initiation of hostilities, however, one of the most profound was its error in predicting how Iraqi society would react once freed of Hussein's grip. Pushed by extremists, it split into ethnic and sectarian groupings. It turned out that few Iraqis – or, at least, not enough of them – had been waiting for the day they could found a Jeffersonian democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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"The main lesson of the invasion of Iraq is that you cannot engineer society," says Mr. Brom.
Sectarian competition will continue
Today, years of internecine warfare have taken their toll. Even under the best of circumstances, it appears inevitable that Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds will compete for political and economic influence for years to come.
Within those sectarian and ethnic groupings various factions will vie for influence as well. At issue will be the nature of competition: ballots or bombs?
"People aren't going to be reconciled, there has been too much violence.... the question is can they work out a new set of arrangements," said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a February briefing.
At this point in its experience in Iraq, the US is no longer trying to win a great victory, according to a range of analysts from around the world. It is simply trying to avoid defeat.
Much depends on the attitudes of the various groups toward basic questions of national identity. But even after all this time, the US may not really know whether the Kurds want their own state, whether Shiites will allow true Sunni participation in central government, and whether the Sunnis – Iraq's old ruling class – truly have given up dreams of reconquering the country.
The most crucial unknown: Is the current decline in sectarian violence a real trend – or are Sunnis and Shiites simply rearming and biding their time?
One bit of good news is that the country has not been physically partitioned into three sectarian cantons, as some predicted. At least, not yet.
The current situation is "semiseparation," says Mr. O'Hanlon. He estimates that about half of the possible ethnic cleansing that could occur in mixed neighborhoods, has.
Today Baghdad neighborhoods are separated by miles of security walls and blast barriers.
"If you get an [Iraqi] security force that is capable enough, get a couple of rounds of elections, more economic growth, there is a chance to take down those barriers," says O'Hanlon.
But it is only a chance, and a small one at that, he says. The worst-case scenario would be a return to the levels of violence of 2006 – times two. With such a resumption "at some point you would have complete ethnic cleansing," he says.
Iran ascends while US bogged down