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Seven Things to Watch in Iraq

As events tumble forward in Iraq, here are some things to keep an eye on:

1) “Inclusive” Government

A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.

The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.

2) For-Show Sunnis

Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.

3) Gestures

Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.

Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.

One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.

4) War-Making

Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.

Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.

Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.

5) U.S. Bombing

More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.

More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.

Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.

6) That Coalition

If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.

Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.

7) Iran

Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.

But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.

Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.

While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.

What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.

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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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