Roger Owen: Iraq is doomed to warlord rivalry in the near term

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Roger Owen is a professor Middle East history at Harvard University.]

WHAT GENERAL PETREAUS and his master, President Bush, would like us to believe is that recent American policy in Iraq can be seen as a military success but a political failure judged in terms of the inability of the country's sectarian leaders to unite. What they cannot see is that the two are much more closely related than they are willing to admit.

One factor is that by arming and financing the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province as local militias, the American military is both recognizing the lack of central government control and helping to undermine it still further. But there is much more to it than that.

The major reasons why sectarian leaders cannot come together to create a united leadership for a united Iraq is that, rather than being able to control their followers outside the Green Zone, they are now, to a larger extent, controlled by them.

How and why this came about can be summed up under two related reasons. One concerns the long history of the devolution of local power by British and American authorities, first to the Kurds, then to those Iraqi sectarian parties that won a majority in the provincial elections in 2005....

The second, increasingly important reason is the fact that, as in the case of Lebanon during its own civil war, there were enough economic resources scattered around the country for local warlords who controlled them to maintain their own loyal militias and civilian constituencies without having to reply on the leadership's financial support....

The implications are that Anglo-American policy aimed at building a central government consisting of a working arrangement among the leaders of all the larger sectarian parties has failed. Without the power over their constituents that comes from their ability to provide them with resources, these leaders have become largely captive to the more bellicose and outspoken among their followers.

Indeed, this inconvenient fact is often recognized on the ground as, given the chaos in Baghdad itself, American reconstruction teams become forced to hand over new projects to whichever of the factions can be trusted to operate them on a local basis. Such tendencies can only increase in strength once there be appears anything like a reasonable timetable for American military redeployment or withdrawal....

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