Iraq: U.S.-Iranian Negotiations, the Surge and the Future of the War

10 MINS READJul 19, 2007 | 23:40 GMT
Top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will present a progress report on the Iraq war to Congress as early as September. The report will highlight military successes in the Sunni provinces of Diyala and Anbar as evidence that the surge strategy is working after taking full effect in mid-June. Progress in the war cannot solely be defined by military statistics, however, or by exaggerated political advances like a rushed hydrocarbons law. The military indicators need to be viewed against the backdrop of U.S.-Iranian negotiations over Iraq, which STRATFOR has tracked intensively since the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003. These negotiations have taken us on an interesting ride, encompassing everything from the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict to the 2007 British detainee incident in the Persian Gulf to the ongoing saga over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S.-Iranian negotiations are intrinsically linked to the U.S. surge strategy, and only when these two issues are analyzed in tandem can we get an accurate picture of where this war is heading. The Military View The first surge brigade began to make itself felt in Baghdad in February. By the end of that month, 15 joint security stations had been set up around the city. Since then, extrajudicial killings in the Iraqi capital have dropped to nearly one-third of their January levels, when some 1,500 such incidents took place. U.S. and coalition fatalities climbed in accordance with operational tempo and increased exposure. Now that the surge is at full strength and some of the security efforts have already begun to be felt, the latest indicators show significant drops across the board. Major bombings are down since April, and coalition fatalities have showed substantial decreases since May. It is of course extremely early, and the effects of the full surge cannot yet be seen. But these initial signs indicate the strategy has some chance of success. Success in Anbar province has played no small part in disrupting the carnage that is the hallmark of foreign jihadists, who play a major role in both suicide and large-casualty bombings. Sunni tribal groups long ago tired of al Qaeda and foreign jihadists in their midst. Although Anbar remained bloody in 2006, the tide began to turn at the beginning of 2007. Operation Mawtini is now under way to keep jihadists on the run and prevent them from planning and carrying out operations in the population centers of the province. There is no more telling indicator of the success of the cooperation with domestic Sunni groups in Anbar than the dramatic drop-off in coalition casualties in what has been Iraq's deadliest province. But one of the more telling aspects of the surge has been the ability of the U.S. military to carry out major operations outside the Iraqi capital while simultaneously maintaining security efforts inside Baghdad. Operation Arrowhead Ripper began in June and sought to engage the remnants of Sunni jihadist groups that slipped out of Anbar and Baghdad. Operation Marne Avalanche began less than a month later, south of Baghdad, to interdict weapons and supplies flowing into the city. While the impact of these new operations has yet to be felt, the initiative appears to be with the coalition. The ultimate results, of course, remain unclear. It is far too early to speculate about success. Iraq remains — at best — the most daunting and intractable confrontation for the United States since at least Vietnam. But the last few months have provided indications that the coalition has arrested the downward spiral of violence. If this turns out to be a lasting trend, the single most important objective of the surge will have been achieved.
1. JAN. 10: U.S. surge strategy announced 2. JAN. 21: First surge brigade arrives in Baghdad 3. MARCH 10: U.S., Iranian and Syrian diplomats meet in Baghdad to discuss Iraq's future 4. MAY 3-4: An Iranian proposal for Iraq is delivered to the United States at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt 5. MAY 20-21: Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Iraq's most senior Shiite politician, travels to the United States and Iran 6. MAY 25: Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr reappears and begins purging his militia 7. MAY 28: The United States and Iran hold their first high-level direct talks in Baghdad 8. MAY 30: Final surge brigade arrives in Baghdad 9. MAY 31: Clashes between Sunni nationalist insurgents and jihadists spread to Baghdad 10. JUNE 13: Jihadists attack the Al Askariyah mosque in As Samarra 11. JUNE 13 and 24: Al-Sadr's political bloc and main Sunni political bloc boycott parliament 12. JULY 18-19: Al Sadr's political bloc and Iraq's main Sunni political bloc end their parliamentary boycott
The Political View Washington and Tehran have reached a point in negotiations where both are under heavy pressure to deal with each other in order to avoid their worst-case scenarios for Iraq. As expected, we have been hearing much bluster about the United States entertaining military options against Iranian nuclear sites and the Iranians warning Washington that Tehran has selected 600 targets in Israel for ballistic missile strikes. But this is all part of the negotiating game; our job is to discipline ourselves to see through the rhetoric and focus intently on the meat of the negotiations — namely, how much political representation will Iran and the Iraqi Shia afford to Iraq's Sunni bloc, what real progress has been made in dividing the jihadist and Sunni nationalist insurgencies, and to what extent Iran will be able to consolidate its influence among a severely fractured Iraqi Shiite bloc. When the surge was announced in January, there was a clear spike in suicide attacks (a signature tactic of the jihadists) and multiple-fatality bombings against Shia. This was a sign that Sunni insurgents, both Iraqi nationalist and jihadist, were attempting to undermine the surge strategy by escalating attacks and encouraging sectarian violence throughout the country. But right around the time when the first U.S.-Iranian meeting was held, in early March, there began to be a drop-off of attacks against Sunnis and Shia, indicating a decline in sectarian violence. That gradual drop-off continued in line with several other notable political events, such as the U.S.-Iranian meetings that followed in May and the return of Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraq to whip his militia into shape. Following al-Sadr's return to Iraq, there was a notable decline in attacks targeting Sunnis. When Iran presented the United States with its terms for Iraq at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in early May, the expectation was for evidence to start appearing that Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq were reining in militia activity against Sunnis, and for Saudi Arabia and the United States to curb Sunni attacks. Naturally, there were spoiler attempts by the jihadists to derail the talks, which led to a second spike in suicide attacks. But suicide attacks have declined since April, which can also be attributed to the growing success of a strategy being pushed by Washington — and we presume to some extent by Riyadh — to get the Sunni nationalist insurgents to focus more of their attention on the foreign jihadists. These political developments cannot be explicitly linked to the attack levels, but in conjunction with the effects of the troop surge, a picture is gradually forming of what future progress in U.S.-Iranian talks could spell for Iraq in the coming months. Though there has been a bit of a lull in the talks since the much-heralded May 28 U.S.-Iranian meeting in Baghdad, some signs of progress have come to light recently. Both Iran and the United States are now talking about setting a date for another face-to-face meeting in the near future to follow up on their proposals from the May 28 talks. Not coincidentally, radical Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr's 30-member political bloc, as well as Iraq's main Sunni bloc — the 44-member Tawafoq Iraqi Front — ended their boycott of parliament to pull the Iraqi government out of paralysis July 18 and 19 respectively. Moreover, a group of Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups that publicly have turned against al Qaeda came forth with a plan July 19 to form a political front to negotiate with the United States in anticipation of an early U.S. withdrawal. A spokesman for Iraqi Hamas spoke on behalf of his group as well as the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the infamous Ansar al-Sunnah, saying they would form a common front called the "Political Office for Iraqi Resistance" to help unite Sunni insurgent groups to conduct political negotiations effectively. Thus, a large segment of the domestic Sunni insurgents feel the time is right to begin playing ball with the Americans and edge their way into the political process. Though Sunni nationalist insurgent attacks presumably will drop as political negotiations progress, statistics on multiple-fatality bombings can be skewed at first glance. Suicide attacks, a jihadist trademark, will be used to derail the talks and probably will increase as the negotiations move forward. The Road Ahead When looking at the military and political analysis in tandem, STRATFOR's progress report on the Iraq war is mildly hopeful. U.S. boots on the ground have made reasonable progress in their "clear and hold" strategy in and beyond the Iraqi capital, and the United States and Iran are inching closer to a political settlement. Of course, there are still a number of arrestors in play. Once the United States actually begins drawing down troops, withdrawing from combat operations and handing more responsibility to Iraqi security forces, the question comes to the forefront whether the relative stability that resulted from the surge will hold long enough to allow the Iraqi government to function and make good on any promises made in the political negotiations. Internal Iraqi political negotiations also are bound to become increasingly complicated over the contentious oil law and rising Turkish pressure on Iraq's Kurdish faction. Whether the three big players (the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia) hold enough sway over the various factions inside Iraq to make an agreement actually work also remains questionable. With the Iraqi parliament insistent on taking its monthlong recess in August, it already looks like the U.S. progress report could be pushed to November to allow Petraeus to deliver a reasonable assessment of the war. Iran also is watching closely how the U.S. withdrawal debate in Congress pans out, thinking it can likely hold out for more concessions if U.S. President George W. Bush gets cornered enough by his own government to withdraw. But playing the waiting game also carries its consequences for the Iranians, who realize that they have 18 months to seal a deal while a weak president remains in the White House. The current military operations are now laying the groundwork for the political negotiations to take effect. With an eye on both the military stats and the political developments, anything that can be called progress involving Iraq in the coming months largely will turn on the negotiations between Washington and Tehran.

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