Council on Foreign Relations

Democrats Struggling with Iraq Policy

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BERNARD GWERTZMAN: The murderous leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed last week, and that's touched off renewed interest about the politics in Iraq, both among American and Iraqi politicians. And of course President Bush just visited Iraq. What do you make of this situation? Do you expect any real changes to occur?

IVO H. DAALDER: I don't think we'll see a lot of change either in Iraq or, frankly, here. I think the death of Zarqawi appears to have come too late to have a real impact on what happens inside Iraq. He was an evil man. His death is to be welcomed at any point, but the violence inside Iraq and the causes of the violence have spread well beyond Zarqawi. This has become a significant sectarian conflict that has become increasingly violent as time has gone by. One would argue this is a civil war in all but name, and the number of deaths inside Iraq is frankly astonishing. Fourteen hundred people showed up in the morgue in May. That's about fifty plus a day. That's just in Baghdad. That's just the people who actually go through the morgue. We're seeing people killed inside Iraq at a rate of between fifty and a hundred a day. That's fifteen to thirty-five thousand people a year. At that rate, to argue Zarqawi's death is going to make much of a difference I think is quite mistaken.

GWERTZMAN: In other words you don't see any rapprochement between the Sunnis and Shiites?

DAALDER: There is the welcome news that the cabinet, six months after the election, is now complete, where we do have senior Shiite and Sunni leaders willing to sit at least around a table. What we haven't seen yet is either a diminution in the kind of violence between various sects and indeed among them. In Basra, the fight is among Shiites. It's not between Shiites and Sunnis. But in Baghdad it is still between Shiites and Sunnis, and in Kirkuk it's between the Sunnis and Kurds. So the kind of ethnic and sectarian violence that has engulfed the country over the last couple of years has gotten worse. The political process does not seem to have put a dent in that violence.

GWERTZMAN: Do you think this may change?

DAALDER: The capacity of the Iraqi government to suppress violence and to monopolize it is frankly not there, and I think the president's visit sort of underscored this. The president of the United States travels to Iraq, doesn't tell anybody—even the prime minister of that country is not told the president of the United States is not only in his country but indeed is in the building in which the prime minister has just arrived, and they will meet within five minutes. If you want to underscore the lack of security in the Iraqi state, this is it. We don't trust the Iraqi government enough to even inform him that President Bush is about to visit. That, I think, is symptomatic of the problem we are confronting in Iraq, which is that there is no government capable of doing what states do, which is monopolizing violence and controlling what goes on inside its borders.

GWERTZMAN: What about the impact in the United States of Zarqawi's death and the president's trip? The Democrats seem to be undecided what kind of program they want. How will all this affect political developments in the United States?

DAALDER: The Republicans will seize any bit of good news to go back on the offensive. We already saw that with Karl Rove's speech in New Hampshire on Monday in which he accused Democrats of cutting and running and argued if the Democrats had been in control Zarqawi would still be alive—cheap political theater on his part. I think polls are likely to at least halt Bush's slide, perhaps even bump slightly up, but as violence returns as the main topic of conversation, we will continue to see the public's attitude being that it has lost faith in this administration's ability to guide us out of the mess. 

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Mr. Bernard Gwertzman is the Consulting Editor for cfr.org