The phoenix may yet soar on a wing and a prayer

July 22, 2005

With most Iraqis now ready to embrace democracy, it is time to take a deep breath and jump, says Brendan Simms

Whether Iraq is another Vietnam is hotly debated around the world. Perhaps, however, a more appropriate "V-word" is Verdun. At the First World War battle of Verdun in 1916, the Germans hoped to "bleed the French white" in an epic conflict of attrition. They nearly did, and it was only the leadership of General Petain, and his rallying cry of "They shall not pass", that averted defeat.

In some ways, Iraq is becoming a Verdun: Coalition strategy aims to "atrit" the insurgents and vows not to let the enemies of democracy pass. The US has the means and the stamina to stay the course until Iraq's security forces are deemed ready to meet the challenge. But one wonders if we are making heavier weather of the insurgency than we need to and stunting the very Iraqi capacity we are trying to build. After all, the Germans eventually gave up the strategy of attrition for more sophisticated infiltration tactics in 1917-18 that almost won them the war.

The brutal truth is that the military situation in Iraq is no better today than it was a year ago. US combat fatalities now exceed 1,300. This is the highest figure since 1972, after which the US began to wind down its commitment in Vietnam. There is every likelihood that the total figure will reach 2,000 by the end of the year, with no end in sight. In narrowly military terms, the coalition faces stalemate.

In political terms, the Coalition is winning because, as every counterinsurgency specialist knows, the centre of gravity in a guerrilla war is the population, not enemy forces. January's election showed, to almost universal surprise, just how much Iraq's Shias and Kurds, who make up some 80 per cent of the population, had embraced the process of democratisation. The insurgency has no future to offer them, save Baathist tyranny or Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. It is therefore unlikely that the supertanker of Shia democracy - disciplined, resilient and moderate - will turn.

We have seen the military fruits of this in the past few months, as Iraqi citizens, most of them Kurds and Shias, have flocked to join the police and armed forces despite the dangers. It cannot be more than a few months before they are ready to take the fight to the insurgents, with Coalition support. The date may be sooner than the US military or Iraqi politicians believe. Until that point, Sunni rejectionists will press for a US withdrawal because they fancy their subsequent chances against the Government of Iraq.

A possible alternative strategy would look something like this. The Iraqi security forces should be given complete responsibility for law and order by the end of the summer. Coalition forces should be concentrated in four areas: in secure bases on the Syrian border to demonstrate to Damascus the Coalition's continued commitment to its mission; in secure bases around Baghdad; in the friendly Kurdish areas in the north; and in the British-run south. All active patrolling and routine counterinsurgency work should cease; Coalition troops and heavy weapons would be deployed only against larger concentrations of insurgents. This would massively reduce the US "footprint" and exposure to the enemy; but it would also give Iraqi democrats the benefit of overwhelming Coalition firepower when they need it. Inevitably, some will interpret this as a disguised capitulation to the July 7 bombs in London; but to be swayed by such considerations, and delay regroupment, would itself allow the terrorists to dictate the agenda.

All this is risky. It is possible that Iraqi forces will fare as badly as their ill-trained predecessors did in 2003-04. It is possible that a full-scale Sunni revolt will lead to the complete loss of the western regions. Had Coalition troops withdrawn a year ago, that is what would have happened. But the strategy proposed rests not on any military insight but on the political assumption that about 80 per cent of Iraqi citizens are committed to Iraqi democracy rather than the insurgency; before January 2005, they had no such stake. Moreover, the stronger the Shia and the Kurds are militarily, the more ambiguous the Sunni rejectionists may be about the prospect of a total US withdrawal. In any case, there are more and more signs that the Sunni mainstream is trying to find its way into the political process, another indication that the Coalition is winning the underlying political battle, whatever the surface military turbulence.

Contrary to what one reads, separatism is simply not a long-term option for the resource-poor Sunnis, whose elites have traditionally depended on oil revenues and government posts. They will have to acclimatise themselves to a democratic system in which they do not predominate or else wither on the vine.

So we should take a deep breath and have confidence in our project. This will indeed be an act of faith, not unlike that undertaken by the protagonists of the 1960s movie The Flight of the Phoenix , which deals with the predicament of a group of Westerners stranded in the desert after their plane crashed. After all else fails, one of their number - an aeronautical designer - repairs the aircraft. Just as they are about to take off, he admits that he is a designer of toy aeroplanes; the "underlying principles", he insists, are the same. Needless to say, there was a happy ending. No such outcome is guaranteed in Iraq; history may judge the removal of Saddam Hussein as a reckless experiment by amateurs whose models failed the first test of reality. But if the underlying principles of the project to democratise the Middle East are correct, Iraqi democrats should prevail. One way or the other, if we do not let the Iraqi phoenix soar soon, it may never do so.

Brendan Simms is reader in the history of international relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University, fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and co-president of the Henry Jackson Society. A full version of this article can be found at

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