Wall Street Journal
January 11, 2007
Pg. 15

The Iraqis Must Step Up To the Plate

By L. Paul Bremer

"Looking back, I think that if we had then realized the confusion and chaos which existed we would indeed have thought ours a hopeless task. Certainly the authorities in Washington who had prepared (the occupation policy) did not visualize these conditions." -- Gen. Lucius Clay (1950).

As in Germany a half-century ago, the American experience in Iraq has proven more difficult than anticipated. Mistakes were made -- including my own. Denying government positions to officials in the top 1% of Saddam's Baath party was correct. But it was a mistake to turn implementation over to Iraqi politicians rather than to judges. And in requesting American money to help rebuild Iraq's economy, I put too much emphasis on large-scale projects when smaller ones would have shown quicker results to the average Iraqi.

The president has frankly acknowledged the need for a new approach. He has assessed the various options and has courageously, and in my view wisely, rejected the politically popular course of withdrawing. Over the past four years, progress in Iraq has always depended on the interplay among the political, economic and security sectors. Clearly only Iraqis can design the necessary means to bridge their sectarian and ethnic divisions. The Shiites need to show they understand that democracy involves the proper respect for minority rights. The Sunnis must be brought to understand that while there is a place for them in liberated Iraq, their centuries-old domination of the country is over. The Kurds, with longer experience in elected government, must show patience as their Arab brothers wrestle with these and other issues.

Iraqis cannot make the necessary political compromises in an atmosphere of sustained violence. And although Iraq's economy has done well since the liberation, reconstruction, too, has been severely hampered by the lack of security. So security for Iraq's population is the sine qua non for success. By committing additional American forces, the president's new approach recognizes this fundamental reality. It is no secret that I would have preferred that we would have sent in more forces much sooner. But we are where we are today.

Now the Iraqis must step up to the plate. For months, they have promised additional Iraqi forces for Baghdad, forces which until now have never arrived. And Iraqi and Coalition forces operating in the capital have been subjected to constant political interference, hampering the effectiveness of those operations. An early test of the new approach will be whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now makes good on the promised Iraqi reinforcements, and on his commitment to allow them to deal with the militia, especially those of the radical Moqtada al-Sadr.

Even a successful campaign in Baghdad will not end violence there. But a significant reduction in attacks in the capital would give the Iraqi government the political latitude needed to broaden its political base. The prime minister will also be watched carefully in Washington and in Iraq, to ensure that he delivers on his promises to move on the sensitive issues of oil policy and provincial elections, both important to encouraging an atmosphere of reconciliation. If he does not, then surely the Iraqi people will hold his government accountable, as is provided in the Iraqi constitution.

The president's new approach is bold, unpopular and risky. But he is right to reject calls for American withdrawal. Those who advocate such a course need to be frank about the drastic consequences of such a course.

First, it would abandon 27 million Iraqis to broader and much bloodier violence. Some Americans seem prepared to accept this outcome, arguing, "It's their country. Let them sort it out." This is shortsighted and uninformed. Broader sectarian violence between Iraq's Arabs would certainly provoke the Kurds to declare their independence from Iraq. Over the past four years, I have often spoken about this issue with the Kurdish leaders. They have made clear that their decision to join a liberated Iraq depends on a government which can provide security for all its people and which is not dominated by sectarianism. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would have an irresistible attraction for the millions of Kurds living in Syria, Turkey and Iran, and would surely lead to a wider regional war. Such a war would threaten American interests and allies throughout the region and lead to American military re-engagement, probably on a very large scale.

Most importantly, an American defeat in Iraq would immediately endanger Americans. By confirming Osama bin Laden's analysis that America is a "weak horse" driven out of Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia a decade later, defeat would be a major recruiting poster for Islamic extremists everywhere. If force again rules Mesopotamia, there is a real risk that extremists will establish themselves there as they had done in Afghanistan, but this time with major economic resources and an operating base not on the periphery of the Middle East, but at its heart.

These, then, are the stakes in Iraq. The president has acknowledged the need for new leadership and a new strategy. He is to be commended for rejecting the easy popular course.

Mr. Bremer was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003-04.