Hypotheticals December 2005

If America Left Iraq

The case for cutting and running

At some point—whether sooner or later—U.S. troops will leave Iraq. I have spent much of the occupation reporting from Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul, Fallujah, and elsewhere in the country, and I can tell you that a growing majority of Iraqis would like it to be sooner. As the occupation wears on, more and more Iraqis chafe at its failure to provide stability or even electricity, and they have grown to hate the explosions, gunfire, and constant war, and also the daily annoyances: having to wait hours in traffic because the Americans have closed off half the city; having to sit in that traffic behind a U.S. military vehicle pointing its weapons at them; having to endure constant searches and arrests. Before the January 30 elections this year the Association of Muslim Scholars—Iraq's most important Sunni Arab body, and one closely tied to the indigenous majority of the insurgency—called for a commitment to a timely U.S. withdrawal as a condition for its participation in the vote. (In exchange the association promised to rein in the resistance.) It's not just Sunnis who have demanded a withdrawal: the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is immensely popular among the young and the poor, has made a similar demand. So has the mainstream leader of the Shiites' Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who made his first call for U.S. withdrawal as early as April 23, 2003.

If the people the U.S. military is ostensibly protecting want it to go, why do the soldiers stay? The most common answer is that it would be irresponsible for the United States to depart before some measure of peace has been assured. The American presence, this argument goes, is the only thing keeping Iraq from an all-out civil war that could take millions of lives and would profoundly destabilize the region. But is that really the case? Let's consider the key questions surrounding the prospect of an imminent American withdrawal.

Would the withdrawal of U.S. troops ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites?

No. That civil war is already under way—in large part because of the American presence. The longer the United States stays, the more it fuels Sunni hostility toward Shiite "collaborators." Were America not in Iraq, Sunni leaders could negotiate and participate without fear that they themselves would be branded traitors and collaborators by their constituents. Sunni leaders have said this in official public statements; leaders of the resistance have told me the same thing in private. The Iraqi government, which is currently dominated by Shiites, would lose its quisling stigma. Iraq's security forces, also primarily Shiite, would no longer be working on behalf of foreign infidels against fellow Iraqis, but would be able to function independently and recruit Sunnis to a truly national force. The mere announcement of an intended U.S. withdrawal would allow Sunnis to come to the table and participate in defining the new Iraq.

But if American troops aren't in Baghdad, what's to stop the Sunnis from launching an assault and seizing control of the city?

Sunni forces could not mount such an assault. The preponderance of power now lies with the majority Shiites and the Kurds, and the Sunnis know this. Sunni fighters wield only small arms and explosives, not Saddam's tanks and helicopters, and are very weak compared with the cohesive, better armed, and numerically superior Shiite and Kurdish militias. Most important, Iraqi nationalism—not intramural rivalry—is the chief motivator for both Shiites and Sunnis. Most insurgency groups view themselves as waging a muqawama—a resistance—rather than a jihad. This is evident in their names and in their propaganda. For instance, the units commanded by the Association of Muslim Scholars are named after the 1920 revolt against the British. Others have names such as Iraqi Islamic Army and Flame of Iraq. They display the Iraqi flag rather than a flag of jihad. Insurgent attacks are meant primarily to punish those who have collaborated with the Americans and to deter future collaboration.

Wouldn't a U.S. withdrawal embolden the insurgency?

No. If the occupation were to end, so, too, would the insurgency. After all, what the resistance movement has been resisting is the occupation. Who would the insurgents fight if the enemy left? When I asked Sunni Arab fighters and the clerics who support them why they were fighting, they all gave me the same one-word answer: intiqaam—revenge. Revenge for the destruction of their homes, for the shame they felt when Americans forced them to the ground and stepped on them, for the killing of their friends and relatives by U.S. soldiers either in combat or during raids.

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