"A very bloody summer ahead"

Violence in Falluja and Sadr City may not herald all-out civil war, but it is likely to continue as the U.S. struggles with the lack of a clear transition plan in Iraq.


Mark Follman
April 7, 2004 3:47AM (UTC)

The grisly images of four American civilian military contractors being mutilated in Falluja last week was a disturbing reminder of the violence still raging in Iraq. But Falluja is a Sunni Muslim stronghold loyal to Saddam Hussein; the wider Shiite uprising that followed on Sunday in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad and in several nearby towns, sparked by virulently anti-U.S. cleric Moktada al-Sadr, raises an even more troubling question: With the U.S. poised to transfer power to an interim government in just under three months, is Iraq teetering on the edge of full-scale civil war?

Middle East expert Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the violent events of the past week are more coincidental than they are evidence of a growing, coordinated insurgency. But with the United States set to hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30, the next six months, Bronson believes, will be critical to Iraq's long-term stability. The Bush administration, she says, looks woefully ill-prepared for shepherding Iraq forward.

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"It's still not at all clear who we're transitioning power to," says Bronson. "That is stunning, just three months before the hand-over is to take place. The challenges with infrastructure are enormous, and you really need a rolling start with this. But apparently the administration sees it all happening on one day."

Bronson, who was director and co-author of a joint CFR-Baker Institute report on post-conflict Iraq, shares many of the concerns voiced by top U.S. senators following the uprising on Sunday: that the lack of a clear U.S. plan for Iraq in the months ahead could lead to disaster, once the U.S. ostensibly gives up power. Still, the Bush administration has indicated that roughly 100,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after the June 30 transition, and that the U.S. will open its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad. Worried that a "bloody summer" will accompany the transition of power, Bronson wonders who, exactly, U.S. officials will be dealing with once the Coalition Provisional Authority packs its bags for home.

Salon reached Bronson by phone at her office in New York on Monday.

Are the recent events in Falluja, and the violent uprising on Sunday sparked by Moktada al-Sadr, a turning point for the U.S. occupation?

The fact that you have both of these events occurring so closely together is problematic for the administration. If it were just what happened in Falluja, it would be easy for them to say, "Look, Falluja has always been a problem, it's the heart of Saddam country, and this has always been the challenge." But that's harder to say when you also have rioting, and mobs gathering in the Shiite communities in Baghdad. What it looks like now is that the problem is with all communities -- and the Kurds could be next. But I don't think that is what's really going on.

The continuation of violence in Falluja does show the real difficulties the U.S. faces in pacifying, or at least neutralizing, Falluja, Ramadi and other [pro-Saddam] places like that. But I think the Sadr City uprising is something different. Moktada al-Sadr has been a problem for the U.S., really since the beginning. The effort was really just to sideline him and push the problem down the road. I think the decision must have been made recently that the administration doesn't want to hand this problem over to the interim government of Iraq. You can see this in the decision late last week to shut down al-Sadr's newspaper. That was something the U.S. could've done before, or next week, or six weeks from now. I think the prevailing view was, "We're getting close enough to June 30 that we really have to shut this guy down." Other efforts didn't really appear to be working.

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Do you think the administration is surprised, though, by the explosive response from al-Sadr and his followers? In some sense isn't this the administration's worst nightmare -- to see violent resistance to the occupation spreading among Iraq's majority Shiite community?

I don't think it's a matter of the resistance spreading, nor do I think the administration is surprised by this. Of course, the events in Falluja and Sadr City are two things the administration would very much like to have happened less closely together. But I don't think there is any growing coordination of resistance here. These are pockets of resistance that we've already known to be real problems for the U.S.

I don't see Moktada al-Sadr as representative in any way of the larger Shiite community. He is a political figure operating out of the slums of Baghdad, one who's trying to figure out how to broaden his base. You see that in his [favorable] talk of Hamas and Hezbollah.

If we started to see something like the Shiite communities in the south of Iraq rallying behind al-Sadr, that would be surprising. That's not the case, and I think what we're seeing is mostly a matter of these two upheavals happening within two days of each other -- that's what's really driving the larger concern.

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In light of these latest eruptions, and with the grisly images of the Americans' bodies being mutilated in Falluja, how will American public opinion be affected? Will there be significant political fallout?

Well, I think these events may be more of a blip, rather than some new trend of endless violence. I do think we'll see more violence leading up to the June 30 transition, and there'll be more violence after the transition.

I think those who supported the president going into Iraq will stay behind him, certainly not wanting to abandon the commander in chief now. And those who've always been skeptical are going to use these events to continue to point out why this was a bad idea.

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What do you see happening by June 30? Do you think there is a viable plan in place for the transition of power to the Iraqis?

No, not at all. [Sen. Dick] Lugar and [Sen. Joe] Biden [the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively] are absolutely right in their criticisms. These two have been holding hearings about postwar planning since before the invasion, as well as after it. They've been trying to engage the administration, and they've gotten nothing from them. I think it's a sign of just how frustrated they are now that they've gone public with their criticisms together. It was clearly a coordinated effort on Sunday.

In your view, where has the administration gone wrong? What has it failed to do?

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Well, it's still not at all clear who we're transitioning power to! That is stunning, just three months before the hand-over is to take place. If we don't know who is taking over, we can't really begin building the relationships that will be necessary with those people, we can't begin transitioning authority now. Think about it: Can we really expect to make the transition in one day? The challenges with infrastructure are enormous, and you really need a rolling start with this. But apparently the administration sees it all happening on one day.

It's also not clear that there will be a U.N. Security Council resolution that will authorize some sort of special representative to Iraq. This is a strange situation to be in. There are just a lot of basic questions surrounding the transition of power that we don't really have answers to.

In a statement Monday, President Bush essentially said that the U.S. plan in Iraq is staying on course. He told reporters that the June 30 deadline "remains firm." What do you make of that?

I think they are staying firm with the deadline. But if it's all going according to plan, it would be interesting to see what that plan actually is. This has been the criticism since last March, that there is no real plan. And by plan, I don't mean Day 1, 2 and 3 -- we've always talked in terms of short, medium and long-range planning. So if all is going according to plan, I think it'd be useful to the Americans and the Iraqis to know what that plan is.

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What specifically do you think is missing from the administration's discussion?

I think it would be useful to know who this interim authority is going to be. What will it really look like? It would be good if we could say, for example, "We have four ministries operating already" -- as if they were really sovereign.

I tend to focus on the longer term, but the bottom line is we're now three months away. I think we need to see a more public discussion of the fact that many American troops will still be in Iraq -- and the natural question is, doing what?

This is my biggest concern: that there is complacency in Washington that, come July, nothing really changes. You hear the administration saying that with 3,000 people the largest U.S. embassy in the world will be in Baghdad, and we'll still have 100,000 troops, so the point they seem to make is that nothing will really be different. But of course everything will be different. There will be entirely different expectations about who's driving the politics. And I'm worried that Americans will stop paying attention because they'll think the occupation is over, and they'll be cheering because U.S. soldiers are coming home -- but then what if something happens in September, some small massacre takes place somewhere over there? What if a dozen men are dragged through the streets then, and Americans wake up and say, "Wait, we're still there?"

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After the four bodies were mutilated in Falluja, people were making comparisons to Mogadishu, but I don't think it's another example of that. To the president's credit, he's been very upfront with the American people about [our huge commitment] of troops in Iraq. However, the administration is not being so transparent about the fact that we're planning to keep staying -- and I'm very worried about that, for the perception on both sides.

Assuming the June 30 transition happens, the crucial time that follows will coincide with the homestretch of the U.S. presidential election. Will the pressures of campaign politics be a threat to what the U.S. really needs to do on the ground in Iraq over the next few months?

I don't really think so. As one of the authors of the Council [on Foreign Relations] report on postwar Iraq, I was one of those who said we have to be thinking about this with a time frame of at least two years. So I believe in the need to stretch this out appropriately. But I'm not now advocating for pushing back the transition deadline, because for it to matter in terms of things like training the Iraqi police force to be autonomously effective, you'd need at least another year. So if we were talking about delaying this a year, I'd be advocating for it, but I think that's out of the realm of possibility. The current talk is about delaying for three months, but I don't think that really buys enough time for anything to be different. In this case, politically, you might as well do it when you said you were going to -- the political impact of delaying would outweigh any tangible benefits.

What's most troubling for the administration now, I think, is that there is going to be a very bloody summer ahead. I don't think they can be sure how that will play for Americans; they might rally around the commander in chief during trying times, or they might say, Oh my God, you've really led us into a hell hole.

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How does Ayatollah Sistani fit into the picture now? Following the Sadr City uprising, the Times reported that Sistani, though calling for calm, "considered the militiamen's cause to be 'legitimate' and condemned the 'acts waged by the coalition forces.'"

I think Sistani is in an interesting position, in that he's speaking for a very large group of Shiite Iraqis. He doesn't want to lose any supporters to al-Sadr, but at the same time he doesn't want to alienate any potential added supporters for himself. But Sistani is the guy we really have to be concerned with -- I say that lightly in one sense, because the troops on the ground have to be concerned with Moktada al-Sadr, but politically, it's Sistani who is the real concern. He's able to put 100,000 people out on the streets, so the administration needs to be taking him seriously, and they are. You can criticize them for not engaging the more religious and tribal elements earlier, but at least they're taking that seriously now, and they should be. Sistani hasn't been too eager to deal with the Americans, but I think we've done a pretty good job working the U.N. in this respect, which Sistani apparently sees as more credible. Working through the U.N. we were able to get a six-month delay for the elections Sistani had been pushing for.

In light of how things have gone to this point, do you think the U.S. can successfully bring democracy to Iraq?

I think we've dug ourselves into a hole, in terms of the lack of planning for what Iraq would look like one year after the conflict. It will be much more difficult for the administration to realize its vision now than it could've been a year ago. I still wouldn't say that it's impossible. They have to put the $20 billion [currently allocated] to work over there -- it's a lot of money to put into Iraq. It would have been nice to put it in while we were there to take credit for it.

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But surely it's not simply a matter of pouring a ton of money in?

Right, and hopefully we will have learned the lessons of the past year and get it into the hands of the right people. It's a lot of money that can do a lot of good. We don't want to do what we did in Afghanistan, where we ended up dumping a bunch of money into warlords' hands and then hoped they'd go away. I think we have a much better feel for Iraq because we've been there for a year, so hopefully there'll be some thoughtfulness about how to best empower the interim authority with all the money flowing in.

Are you concerned Iraq could be on the brink of wider unrest or even a full-scale civil war?

No. But the next six months are critical. I am plenty worried about this summer, what happens when we transition authority -- which I do believe will happen on schedule. How will the politics really play out? This gets back to Biden's question: Who's going to emerge to be the referee?

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Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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