Legitimacy Was Step One

By Gian P. Gentile, a lieutenant colonel in the 4th Infantry Division, operated in West Baghdad last year (THE WASHINGTON POST, 11/02/07):

I learned as a tactical battalion commander in Baghdad’s Amiriyah district last year that government legitimacy was exponentially more important than the number of coalition and Iraqi army forces patrolling the streets, the number of coalition advisers with Iraqi army and police units, or money spent improving services. Indeed, legitimacy of the government of Iraq as seen through the eyes of all Iraqis — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — is the necessary condition for peace based on reconciliation.

In Amiriyah we were neither winning nor losing; we were in stasis. Between August and November last year, I substantially increased the number of combined American and Iraqi army patrols there and the capacity of the American adviser team that worked with a local Iraqi army battalion. Still, the deadlock did not break.

Amiriyah is one of the few districts in Baghdad that is almost completely Sunni. It was built in the early 1970s as a residential area for lawyers, doctors, engineers and members of the Baathist elite. When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, Amiriyah’s affluent residents had the most to lose, and partly because of its long-standing tribal ties to Anbar province, Amiriyah gradually became Baghdad’s Sunni insurgent headquarters.

In the spring of 2003 Sunnis made up about 85 percent of Amiriyah’s population. But sectarian killings have made Sunnis nearly the entire population, and the district has become lethal for the few remaining Shiites.

The enemy of peace in Amiriyah, much like in the rest of Baghdad, was and is a hybrid. The enemy is still an undefeated Sunni insurgency that attacks coalition and Iraqi forces. The enemy is also a vicious and brutal sectarian war carried out not only by Sunni and Shiite extremists but sometimes also by neighbors against neighbors.

As violence mounted significantly in Baghdad over the summer, we confronted this hybrid enemy head-on for a week in early August with an almost fourfold increase of American and Iraqi troops. We also shut down all vehicular traffic in the district, among other things.

The stated purpose for our efforts was to provide breathing room for the government, to allow a break in the violence so it could demonstrate that it was a government of unity. In this sense we “cleared” Amiriyah, and there were no violent acts during that week. Yet the increase in troops was not sustainable.

In the weeks and months after our weeklong operation, American forces did not leave or abandon Amiriyah. We held it with nearly double the number of American and Iraqi troops that had long operated there.

My basic and most fundamental mission was to protect the people. As models of how to proceed, I used Col. H.R. McMaster’s brilliant operations in Tall Afar and the successful actions of my brigade commander, Col. Mike Beech, in the nearby Sunni district of Doura. I also used the Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine as my operational guide. We spent millions of dollars rebuilding schools and cleaning garbage from the streets. We continued to capture and kill Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia members who attempted to attack Amiriyah from outlying areas. We established trust between the Sunni population and our forces and improved their views of the local Iraqi army battalion. For its Sunni residents, Amiriyah became one of the most secure districts in Baghdad.

But the violence continued. Sunnis killed and continue to kill Shiites and government forces because of sectarian hatred, to retaliate for what they view as unfair acts by the Shiite government and because they fear that any Shiites remaining in their district would provoke more oppressive government actions against them.

Could more American troops have eliminated the Sunni insurgency in Amiriyah? Probably not, because the people were not willing to separate themselves from the insurgents. Residents saw the Sunni insurgents as their final hope for protection from an illegitimate government out to crush them.

Could more American troops have stopped the sectarian violence? Possibly, if this war was still being carried out only by Shiite and Sunni extremist groups. But it is now a sectarian war of the people. When I spoke to shopkeepers, professionals, imams and others in Amiriyah, I was told that the solution to ending the violence — both insurgent attacks and sectarian killings — was an Iraqi government they saw as legitimate.

More American troops, more Iraqi troops and more American advisers cannot produce a legitimate government; only the Iraqis can do that. To be sure, a minimum amount of military power is needed in a place such as Amiriyah to maintain order. Those forces are in place and should remain there to provide a baseline of security for the Iraqi government and to demonstrate to all Iraqis that the government is a force for reconciliation and fairness, not division.