Juan Cole: Interviews former Iraqi government official who's out with a book on the war

Historians in the News

Will a surge of U.S. troops make a difference in Iraq? How viable is the current Iraqi government? Will an American withdrawal lead to all-out civil war?

In a new book, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (Yale University Press), Ali A. Allawi argues that American forces failed to understand what they were getting into and made numerous costly mistakes along the way. He brings an insider's perspective to the subject: A longtime opponent of the Baathist regime, Allawi was living in exile and teaching at the University of Oxford in 2003 when he was chosen to be minister of trade under the Iraq Governing Council. He has since served as Iraq's first post-invasion civilian minister of defense, as an elected member of Iraq's Transitional National Assembly, and as minister of finance under Ibrahim al-Jaafari's transitional National Government.

We asked Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the influential blogger at Informed Comment (http://juancole.com), to interview Allawi, by e-mail, about the situation in Iraq. They talked about the occupation; the current Iraqi government and sectarian violence; and the military and political prospects for Iraq, occupation forces stationed there, and the country's Arab neighbors....

Cole: It seems likely that the British Labour Party will pull most U.K. troops out of southern Iraq during the next eight months. The patience of the American public is also not infinite. Some 25,000 U.S. troops have been killed or wounded, with the death toll marching toward 4,000 and at least 20 percent of the injuries serious. The public has turned to the Democratic Party in a bid to find someone who will extract them from this quagmire. It seems entirely possible that the 2008 elections will produce another political earthquake, and it seems highly unlikely that whoever comes to power in 2009 in Washington is going to want Bush's albatross hanging around their necks.

If the U.S. does reduce its troop strength to a half or a third what it is now, can the elected government survive? In what ways might Iraqis respond to such a big reduction in the U.S. military presence? Is not the coalition essentially handing the Shiite south to the Badr Corps [which is commanded by Sciri] and its local police allies (except in Maysan province, where surely the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr will take over)? Can a northern Sunni city like Mosul remain in Baghdad's control if there are no U.S. troops in Nineveh province?

Allawi: I do not believe that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will have a material effect on the level of violence. What it will do is finalize the sectarian character of the Iraqi security forces. At present, the U.S. is, ineffectively, trying to bolster the formation of a professional military that owes its loyalty to the central Iraqi state, and weaving ties between the senior officer corps of the Iraqi army and the U.S. military establishment. That is being constantly undermined and thwarted by a countereffort to ensure that the senior military cadres are loyal to those who control the government apparatus.

A U.S. pullout will simply lead to the abandonment of the formal policy of a nonsectarian military. The government, we must remember, disposes of very large financial resources that will be used to strengthen armed forces that are loyal to it rather than to a nebulous concept of a united Iraqi state. The battle lines will be drawn more sharply, but not necessarily in ways that would inevitably lead to the proverbial bloodbath. The majority Sunni areas will resist more forcefully the imposition of the writ of the central government, possibly by institutionalizing sectarian security forces such as the Anbar tribal levies, and authorizing the formation of similar units in Mosul and elsewhere....

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