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November 06, 2007



This is a very secular analysis of sectarian conflict. It does nothing to address the religious clash that perpetuates tensions, whether the conflict is raging as an all-out war, or is simmering under American occupation. In my opinion, Iraqis need some sort of religious justification not to attack their neighbors of a different sect, and the U.S. just isn't well-equipped right now to do this.


I agree with most of what Kahl says here, with one exception -- a big one -- that I'll get to in a minute. His description of what a national "grand bargain" of reconciliation might be fairly represents a great deal of commentary (though it doesn't appear to represent Kahl's own thinking) in its focus on redressing Sunni Arab grievances. The fact that most of the people in Iraq feel more sinned against by, than sinning toward Iraq's Sunni Arabs -- and feel that way with considerable justice -- is reason enough to write off national reconciliation of this kind.

My major disagreement with Kahl concerns American objectives. The one he doesn't list is liquidation of the military commitment in Iraq. I appreciate the necessity to prevent Iraq or any part of it becoming a sanctuary for internaitional terrorists, and if we could prevent genocide on any scale or even renewed sectarian civil war in Iraq this would be a good thing. Having said this, Americans need to understand that their country and its military cannot afford an indefinite continuation of the current commitment in Iraq. A "presence" -- indefinite continuation of the present commitment on a smaller scale -- does not fix the problem.

This means we will have to be fairly selective about what objectives we must secure in Iraq. There are a lot of outcomes -- renewed sectarian bloodshed and increased Iranian influence are two of them -- which may only be attainable at a price the United States should not be willing to pay. Frankly, the biggest concern I have right now is that the vague fear of some spectacular catastrophe if the American army leaves Iraq will prompt the next administration to limp along a variation of the course the Bush administration is following now.

Eric Martin

Very thought provoking piece Professor Kahl.


Colin Kahl's interesting analysis shows some understanding of the Iraqi Shia perspective which is so often missing from Sunni-centric western commentary. The latter frequently implies that the Iraqi govt is illegitimate ergo the Sunnis maximilist demands must be met or they will continue to try and overthrow the government by force. The Sunnis maximilist demands include recognition of themselves as the sole representative of the Iraqi people.This is not how the Shia/Kurdish alliance would view things, nor do they regard themselves as illegitimate. They have the backing of the constitution and two elections and until the Sunni leadership recognises their legitimacy there will never be a "grand reconciliation".

Andrew R.


I think you are making a mistake by putting "the Sunni" and "the Ba'ath party" into one group. There are plenty of Sunni Iraqis who do *not* think that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is the only legitimate leader of Iraq.


Andrew R

It's so hard to tell from this distance and so little inside knowledge. I was under the impression that ALL the insurgent groups who have formed umbrella political organisations make recognition of the insurgency as the SOLE representative of the Iraqi people - and this includes the Baath Party? But I only get this from the translations here, Missing Links and Evan Kohlmann, and none of these sites seem to have sources on the ground?

So it's impossible to gauge without inside knowledge if this demand is an opening bid or a red line. Certainly the Shia and the Kurd parties are not going to accept this demand and nor can they negotiate the constitution away, even if they were of a mind to, without referral to the people. The constitution can only be changed by referendum - or alternatively by violent overthrow?

Tom Scudder

I guess I have a hard time putting myself in the place of a Shi'ite politician and saying why I would want to send a bunch of oil money to Sunni provinces where it probably would go into buying more weapons to make war against my people. (And if you say there would be safeguards against this, what kind of safeguards would be compatible with actual local autonomy?)

bobo the chimp

Let me second Tom Scudder's point, and add in that the Shiite extremists (except possibly those who are still under al Sadr's control) simply want, for a whole series of reasons, to oppress the Sunni's, if not wipe them out or run them out of the country. And they believe they are slowly succeeding at this, and so have no motivation to reach a settlement, hence Maliki's recent statement.

On the Sunni side, there is the problem that at least a large proportion believe they are they majority and so deserve to dominate the central government.

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