What Next in Iraq?

Friends Committee on National Legislation - Washington newsletter, October 2004


When voters go to the polls this November, the war and occupation of Iraq will be a major issue on their minds. Candidates have made the war in Iraq, as well as the broader "war on terror," a core issue in their campaigns. Many voters want answers to still unaddressed questions: How long will U.S. troops be in Iraq? How many more troops will be called up? How much will it all cost? How many more lives will be lost? Can a sovereign, peaceful Iraq really emerge from the current chaos? What's the U.S. exit strategy?

No matter who takes office in January, answers to these questions may be difficult to come by. At a September 15 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators from both sides of the aisle expressed rising frustration over the ongoing crisis and the lack of planning on the part of the administration. Democrat Sen. Biden (DE) stated forthrightly that the U.S. is "at the end of its rope" in Iraq. Republican Sen. Hagel (NE) urged administration officials not to "delude ourselves" with claims of progress on the ground.

What members of Congress, the U.S. public, and even some in the administration are increasingly acknowledging is that without significant policy change, violence in Iraq will only continue to escalate, perhaps spiraling into civil war.

Transfer to What?

Despite President Bush's claims of "mission accomplished" more than a year ago, violence and insecurity drag on in Iraq. Following the June transfer of "limited sovereignty" to an interim Iraqi government, attacks against U.S. and other foreign troops, Iraqi security forces, and civilians have escalated steadily, as have kidnappings and attacks against international contractors and aid workers.

In early September, the U.S. marked the milestone of 1,000 U.S. soldiers killed. It also began launching more offensive operations in Sadr City, Fallujah, Mosul, and other contested areas around Baghdad. Estimates of the Iraqi death toll are difficult to confirm but range between 11,000 and 37,000 killed. Thousands more have been wounded or left homeless.

Meanwhile, lack of security has brought reconstruction to a near standstill. As of mid-September, only around $1 billion of the $18.4 billion appropriated by Congress for reconstruction had been spent. On September 15, administration officials appeared before Congress to formally request approval to transfer some $3.46 billion of reconstruction fundsoriginally appropriated for water, sewage, and electricity infrastructure projects-to pay for increased security and law enforcement, boost oil outputs, provide debt relief, and create jobs. As one Republican senator noted, the transfer request, however necessary, was a clear acknowledgment that "we are in big trouble." The same day, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned, "You cannot have credible elections [in Iraq] if the security conditions continue as they are now."

A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concurs. Researchers examining five areas of Iraqi life-security, governance and participation, economic opportunity, services, and social well-being-found deteriorating situations across the board, even in areas where some progress had been made in the past year. The lack of public security is only the most obvious problem. Food insecurity impacts 60% of Iraqis, and 55% live below the poverty line. Between 30% and 50% remain unemployed (estimates on unemployment vary widely). Interviews with Iraqis found most people have only limited confidence in the interim government or new Iraqi police and army. Polls show a growing majority expressing open resentment and opposition to the presence of U.S. troops, 140,000 of whom remain in Iraq.

What Does FCNL Advocate Now?

As the possibility for a democratic, peaceful Iraq emerging from the churning chaos becomes increasingly remote, many policymakers in Washington are looking for a way out of the quagmire. Policy think tanks as diverse as the Center for American Progress, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the CATO Institute have been calling for an exit strategy. On September 10, an editorial in The Financial Times announced, "Time to Consider Iraq Withdrawal." While proposals differ on what a U.S. exit from Iraq would look like, they all point to the same question facing this and the next Congress and White House: In the midst of escalating violence, how can the U.S. support the creation of a sovereign, peaceful Iraq and bring its troops home safely?

Military solutions will not resolve the dilemma. Policy solutions will not be easy to identify or implement. Neither proclamations that the U.S. must be resolute and stay the course -a course which has clearly failed-nor calls for immediate withdrawal of all troops address the difficult realities of the disaster that the U.S. has created in Iraq. No matter what choices are made now, the long string of failures and mistakes by the U.S. have done lasting, irreversible damage.

Still, significant policy changes now could help reduce the violence, create space for Iraqis to build their own future, and pave the way for full withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Specifically, FCNL recommends:

* The U.S. immediately end offensive military operations in Iraq and withdraw its troops from urban areas.

* The U.S. relinquish control over security, economic reconstruction, and the political transition to the interim Iraqi government.

* The administration submit to Congress and the U.S. public a comprehensive plan for a responsible withdrawal from Iraq. The plan should include a full accounting of the costs and steps for fulfilling U.S. obligations under international law while ending the occupation.

* Congress reallocate reconstruction aid in Iraq away from large U.S. contractors toward Iraqiled projects and local job creation.

o Congress establish an independent investigation into abuses by U.S. military and civilian personnel and contractors at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and other places of detentions in the "war on terror."

* The U.S. state publicly that it has no plans to establish long-tin or permanent military bases in Iraq. Such a commitment is needed to alleviate fears in the region that the U.S. is seeking new bases to secure access to Middle East oil.

* The administration redouble efforts to establish and support an international protection force for the UN elections team and other UN civilian staff.

* Congress use its power of the purse to condition any future funding for operations in Iraq on these policy changes.

Act Now: In this election season, urge candidates to take a stand on these issues. Ask them whether they will vote to escalate the war in Iraq, or to end it.

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