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Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Report 34 / Middle East & North Africa

What Can the U.S. Do in Iraq?

In Iraq, the U.S. is engaged in a war it already may have lost while losing sight of a struggle in which it still may have time to prevail.

Executive Summary

In Iraq, the U.S. is engaged in a war it already may have lost while losing sight of a struggle in which it still may have time to prevail. Its initial objective was to turn Iraq into a model for the region: a democratic, secular and free-market oriented government, sympathetic to U.S. interests, not openly hostile toward Israel, and possibly home to long-term American military bases. But hostility toward the U.S. and suspicion of its intentions among large numbers of Iraqis have progressed so far that this is virtually out of reach. More than that, the pursuit has become an obstacle to realisation of the most essential, achievable goal -- a stable government viewed by its people as credible, representative and the embodiment of national interests as well as capable of addressing their basic needs.

That does not mean the war is over or its outcome predetermined. Nor does it mean, as some have suggested, that the U.S. ought to rapidly withdraw, for that would come at great cost to its own strategic interests, to the Iraqi people and potentially to the stability of the region as a whole. Rather, it means that Washington must grasp the extent to which the ground beneath its feet has shifted since the onset of the occupation and develop a comprehensive strategy and timetable adapted to this reality if it wants a chance to salvage the situation. And it means that the tactical achievements regularly trumpeted -- the re-occupation of insurgent sanctuaries; increased training of Iraqi security forces; formal adherence to decrees passed by the Coalition Provisional Authority and to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL); the transfer of sovereignty; Prime Minister Allawi's generally pro-American policy and pronouncements; and even the timely conduct of national elections if that happens -- are for the most part Pyrrhic victories in a struggle that has moved on.

Crisis Group has concluded, on the basis of extended field work in Iraq and wide-ranging interviews in Washington, that despite valiant and ongoing corrective efforts, the transition process no longer can succeed as currently fashioned – that is, as the linear culmination of the process underway since the fall of the Baathist regime. It has become too discredited, too tainted, and too closely associated with a U.S. partner in which Iraqis have lost faith for it to be rescued by minor course corrections. To preserve the possibility of a united, cohesive Iraq rallying around a credible central state, elections -- together with their aftermath, the establishment of a sovereign constituent assembly -- must be perceived by its people not as a continuation of what has occurred so far, but as a fundamental break from it. This is true whether the elections are held on 30 January 2005 as scheduled or postponed until there is greater certainty that Sunni Arabs will participate in sufficient numbers to make the results meaningful.

From a U.S. standpoint, a prerequisite is to agree on and articulate clear goals and the position it wants to be in by late 2005 (the point at which the transitional process is to end) -- in particular the scope of the political and, any, military role the U.S. will still want to play. In the absence of a public statement of goals, both Iraqi and non-Iraqi actors have projected their worst -- and often contradictory -- fears upon the U.S. enterprise. Secondly, the U.S. will need to designate a lead official in Washington given presidential backing to formulate and pursue those objectives.

Beyond that, Iraqis have to be persuaded that they are engaged in the task of building a sovereign, unified and independent state, in order to remove doubt as to the allegiance of security forces, political parties, and average citizens. In many ways, the job the U.S. must now perform is a thankless one. It involves satisfying the expectations of a population now largely hostile to the U.S. and encouraging the emancipation and independence of Iraqi institutions whose credibility will depend on their distancing themselves from it.

What is now required is dual disengagement: a gradual U.S. political and military disengagement from Iraq and, no less important, a clear Iraqi political disengagement from the U.S. The new Iraqi state must define itself at least partially in opposition to U.S. policies or it runs the risk of defining itself in opposition to many of its own citizens.

Amman/Brussels, 22 December 2004

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.


Interim President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq