Monday, April 25, 2005

The Other Tipping Point

The talk of the various indicia of "tipping points" has been part and parcel of the coverage in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003. There was the famous "Mission Accomplished" gaffe by the Bush administration, which eagerly jumped ahead of history in leaps and bounds to declare game over way back in May 2003. Then there was talk of Saddam's capture being the turning point...or was it the handover of limited sovereignty to the interim government? The most recent events to trigger the repeated utterance of the "tipping point" refrain were the elections held in late January. According to the more sanguine voices in the choir, the elections built up momentum for change amongst Iraqis who now felt a sense of purpose and an invigorated resolve to stamp out the insurgency and forge ahead toward their bright future replete with the trappings of democracy and freedom.

I've always been slightly dubious about some of the more pollyannaish lauding of the elections because unless the Sunnis are to be brought into the government in a meaningful way, it is unlikely that the insurgency will lose steam simply because there are Shiites and Kurds in the government offices. Even upon the involvement of Sunni voices, there are foreign jihadists and revanchist Sunnis that will carry on regardless of the political configuration in country. The counter-hope is that an inclusive Iraqi government could better isolate and roll up the more intransigent insurgents - which is not beyond the pale of reason. But a funny thing happened on the way to peace, stability and inclusion.

It is now five days shy of three months after the election, and the jockeying for ministries, cabinet posts and the overarching governing principles (regional autonomy, the influence of Islam, etc) have forestalled the formation of a government (although there are
rumblings that this could change soon - hat tip Nadezhda). Still, the Sunnis appear no closer to joining the new government than they did on election day. Much of the positive feeling Iraqis took away from their experience in the voting booth has ceded ground to frustration and disenchantment at the lack of progress in the political realm.

But what is really fueling this renewed cynicism is the fact that contrary to expectations, little has changed on the ground post-election. Further, because many of these problems are so complex and difficult to solve, it is not clear to what extent progress will be apparent in the near -term aftermath of the formation of a new government regardless. Critical services such as electricity, sewage treatment and drinking water are still below pre-invasion standards for many regions. Law enforcement is spotty at best, and the security situation is experiencing major setbacks, with the resignations and abandonment by new police recruits undermining the effort to instill order (not to mention the killing of large numbers of these personnel by insurgents). This in turn is giving rise to the newest cottage industry in Iraq: kidnapping. On top of that, oil production has been hampered by insurgent attacks, and the crumbling oil infrastructure has been largely unaddressed while corruption and poor management have plagued the process - thus choking off a needed source of revenue for the nascent democratic Iraq.

Against this backdrop of stagnation and decay in vital sectors of Iraqi society, the violence by insurgents has continued apace and the tactics employed tell of an insurgency capable of adapting and adjusting: from the brash newly executed large-scale attacks on
US military facilities, to innovations in suicide bombing techniques such as the delayed second bomb that targets response teams which was on display in two locations this weekend. As retired General John Keane put it upon returning from a fact finding mission undertaken at the request of active military personnel:
"The insurgency is viable and resilient and has the capacity to achieve significant surprise," Gen. John Keane told The Hill this week. "We can expect more attacks. They have the capacity to plan a coherent operation for large-scale effect."
With this in mind, I wonder if we are not ignoring the significance of another potential tipping point in Iraq: When will the Shiites lose their heretofore remarkable patience and begin launching reprisal attacks against Sunni targets? The amount of forbearance shown by the Shiite population, and its leaders like Sistani, has really been beyond praiseworthy up to this date. Insurgents have deliberately targeted Shiite mosques and neighborhoods, with great success, in a concerted effort to spark sectarian violence but somehow the Shiites have managed to resist the urge to seek vengeance. Perhaps they are trained in the art of endurance because of the decades of cruelty suffered under Saddam's reign, but there must be limits to even this kind of learned discipline. When those limits are traversed, the outcome could take a drastic turn for the worse.

There are signs that the restraint is beginning to fray around the edges, as
Juan Cole posts:

Al-Hayat reports that Shiite-Sunni tensions in Iraq are boiling over. The new governor of Najaf, Asad Abu Kalal, threatened the Sunni Arabs with reprisals, during the funeral Saturday for victims of an attack on congregants at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad on Friday. He demanded that the Association for Muslim Scholars (a hardline Sunni group that often functions as the political wing of the guerrilla movement) "dissociate itself from the criminals." The governor of Najaf is from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite, fairly hardline group long in exile in Iran.

Abu Kalal said, "We hold responsible the members of the Sunni branch . . . and demand that they issue statements and halt these criminal actions, so that we are not constrained to react . . ."
This is really a race against time. As more and more Shiites fall victim to attacks, the underlying pressure inches closer to critical mass. Eventually, the Shiites will be dragged into a violent cycle of revenge and counterstrikes unless these attacks on their citizens and holy sites can be prevented or at the very least, made less frequent. The truth is, in Iraq there are countervailing tipping points. We have to work toward achieving the one that results in a quelling of the insurgency before its continued existence causes the other to fall. The latter option would be nothing short of tragic. I wonder where that invisible boundary lies? (hat tip to Juan Cole for many of the above links)

(cross-posted at LAT)

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