The swearing-in of the new Iraqi cabinet bodes trouble when viewed against the backdrop of Peter Maass' report in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. In that article Maass described the "Salvadorization" of the Iraqi counterinsurgency, its being shouldered increasingly by elite paramilitary groups created and directed by individual ministries of the Iraqi government rather than the nascent Iraqi national army. These new police commando units are largely composed of and commanded by Sunni Arabs, many former soldiers and officers of the Republican Guard.
These units have a natural advantage over US soldiers or even other US-trained Iraqi units in that their background and experience are incalculable assets in the collection and analysis of intelligence on the insurgents. Maass' article describes the commando's high rate of success, he also candidly reports the severity of their methods. Though their American advisors officially discourage human rights abuses and breaches of the Geneva Convention, Maass himself witnessed beatings and death threats and saw evidence that worse was transpiring out of sight of American advisors.
All of these facts are bad portents given today's swearing-in of the new Iraqi cabinet. Though a compromise break in the deadlock over a new government seems to have been reached, key ministerial posts remain unfilled, including defense, oil, and human rights. The new government's best hope of continuing the counterinsurgency effectively rests with establishing its authority over the new commando units that are operating most successfully in the field. Those units were formed under the provisional department of the interior, but any successful integration of the paramilitaries within regular government authority requires a viable deparment of defense. Even if the paramilitaries remain seperate from the Iraqi national army, a legitimate defense department will be necessary to lay down an authoritative policy with which the paramilitaries will feel compelled to comply.
In this regard, wrangling over the defense post bodes ill. Reportedly the Sunni contingency of the government covets the defense ministry, but all proposed Sunni candidates have bee rejected as having too close ties with the former Ba'ath regime. As the Sunni troops currently operating in the field against the insurgency are "tainted" with the same ties, for this to be a source of friction at this juncture does not hold out good hope for the complete and successful integration of the paramilitaries within the umbrella of government authority as the insurgency wears on.
As hopeful an event as the January election was, the peril in Iraq may be measured against a very definite minimum gauge. A US pullout within the next 18 months seems certain, and the continuation of the insurgency in the wake of a US pullout is just as predictable. Civil war is inevitable from this perspective, what remains uncertain is whether the battle lines in that civil war will remain drawn as they are now (with all forces currently for or against the government continuing unchanged in their allegiances) or whether the conflict will become more complex in the wake of the US withdrawal.
A diverse tapestry of armed groups contribute to the strategic situation in Iraq today. In addition to the various factions that comprise the insurgency, the Iraqi national army, and the new paramilitaries, there are the Kurdish pesh merga militia, the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. If the new police commando units become alienated from government authority not only will the Iraqi government lose its most effectve counterinsurgency weapon, but a collapse of trust might occur that would set all the various armed factions into motion against one-another, turning the civil war from a bilateral conflict into an anarchic cataclysm resembling the situation of Lebanon in the 1980's.
Much of the strategic situation in the long view will be determined by political developments in the weeks and months ahead. If the Iraqi government can build a defense ministry that can coordinate the various armed assets to which it has claim the civil conflict in the wake of a Coalition withdrawal may be attenuated. If not, that conflict may become very protracted and destructive. The only thing that is certain now is that the ultimate outcome of the Iraq war is out of the hands of US policymakers and rests upon the actions of Iraqi politicians, actions which US leaders will not be able to dictate or micro-manage as they might like.