July 17, 2008 | Council on Foreign Relations

Who Obama Should See in Iraq

Barack Obama is headed to Baghdad, probably within days. It’s a shame he chose to pre-empt the visit with a big speech and an op-ed on the subject. He just might learn a thing or two while he’s there.

I helped plan these congressional delegations (or CODELS) to Iraq for over 250 congressmen and senators when I worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority. I know that congressmen find them illuminating despite the obvious limitations imposed by time and security concerns. Here are some individuals and groups Mr. Obama should make it a priority to see:

Sheikh Abu Risha. He’s a founder of what’s become known as Sahawa al Iraq, or the Anbar Awakening Movement. This is the grass-roots Sunni tribal movement that has driven al Qaeda from Ramadi. Abu Risha inherited the leadership of the movement in September 2007, after his brother was assassinated.

When his tribe recently captured the lead murder suspects—rank-and-file tribal members in collaboration with al Qaeda—the tribal leadership turned them over to the Iraqi government’s national police force. Abu Risha told me that this was the first time in the tribe’s history it had surrendered its own to a national government (a Shiite-led government, no less) instead of subjecting them to the Sunni tribe’s own extrajudicial system.

Critics tend to belittle the pace and seriousness of reconciliation taking place via legislation in Iraq’s National Assembly. But they should not underestimate the real-life reconciliation that has been occurring every day, as exemplified by Sunni Sheikhs like Abu Risha cooperating with the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The reconciliation can also be seen in the Iraqi Army. The First Brigade of the First Division, for example, is 60% Sunni, 40% Shiite. This mixed brigade has fought in Anbar province against Sunni al Qaeda terrorists, as well as in operations in Basra against the Shiite Sadrist militia. The sectarian mix, cohesion and effectiveness of Iraq’s army is increasingly reflecting the First Division’s First Brigade.

It’s in part because of this kind of reconciliation that violence against Iraqi civilians has declined by approximately 80% over the past year, according to data from the U.S. military, the Iraqi government, and several independent research organizations. U.S. casualties are at record lows too.

Earlier this year, Mr. Obama credited the Democratic takeover of Congress in the 2006 elections for the decline in Iraqi violence, arguing that Sunni tribes only then began to recognize the need to reconcile. He should ask Abu Risha whether he agrees.

The military men and women who re-enlisted on July 4. Over the recent holiday weekend, 1,215 America airmen, marines, sailors and soldiers gathered at the U.S. military headquarters at Camp Victory, Baghdad, to raise their right hands and pledge to continue to serve. It was the largest re-enlistment ceremony since the U.S. armed forces went all-volunteer in 1973, according to Sgt. Maj. Marvin L. Hill. He commented afterwards that “these service members know the cost of war and they are still re-enlisting.”

As is customary on these CODELs, while he is in Iraq Mr. Obama will visit with troops from Illinois, his own state. He should also carve out time to meet those who have re-enlisted while serving on a battlefield.

There is a tendency in some corners to characterize our troops as victims, rather than heroes, let alone people who are proud of their mission and remain confident in its chances for success. Mr. Obama should hear why some of these men and women on the front lines believe the current strategy is working.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Of course Mr. Obama will spend time with the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad. But beyond the standard briefing on the current state of affairs, he should probe the ambassador about his own change of heart on U.S. policy in Iraq.

Mr. Crocker is a fluent Arabic speaker, widely regarded as among the State Department’s most distinguished Arabists. Before Iraq, he was ambassador to Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan, with postings as well to Iran, Qatar, Egypt and Afghanistan.

Before the war, Messrs. Obama and Crocker both opposed the invasion of Iraq. In a 2002 memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mr. Crocker outlined the risks of going to war, including the danger of inflamed sectarian tensions, violent Sunni opposition to the new political order, and meddling from neighbors Iran and Syria.

But Mr. Crocker is a professional diplomat, not an ideologue. Since his days serving with the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and later taking over as ambassador, he has focused on the challenges facing U.S. policy now—not on whether his 2002 views have been vindicated. He is a strong supporter of the surge strategy, and recognizes that a sustained U.S. commitment to Iraq is essential to building on recent successes.

When Mr. Crocker and I were colleagues in Iraq, I often saw him provide unvarnished and sober recommendations to the most senior officials in the administration, including President Bush. He is not afraid of telling his political masters what they do not want to hear. Mr. Obama should avail himself of Mr. Crocker’s experience and judgment, and should give him a fair hearing on why – whatever mistakes both men may think were made in 2002—the current strategy is the right one in 2008.

The press corps. There are a handful of Western reporters who have been based in Iraq on-and-off for the past few years. They have seen, and lived through, both the near collapse of Iraq as well as its recent stabilization.

The White House has actually invited current and former Baghdad bureau reporters to the Oval Office for the president to hear their observations. Guests have included NBC’s Richard Engel and the New York Times’s John Burns. Mr. Obama should do the same.

Mr. Burns won Pulitzer Prizes for coverage in Bosnia and Afghanistan before immersing himself in Iraq. Before the surge was implemented, this is how he described the stakes of withdrawal on “The Charlie Rose Show”:

“Friends of mine who are Iraqis—Shiite, Sunni, Kurd—all foresee a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that will absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now. It’s really difficult to imagine that that would happen . . . without Iran becoming involved from the east, without the Saudis, who have already said in that situation that they would move in to help protect the Sunni minority in Iraq.

“If you pull out now, and catastrophe ensues, then it is very likely that the United States would have to come back in circumstances which, of course, would be even less favorable, one might imagine, than the ones that now confront American troops here.”

These four discussions are not ones that Mr. Obama has had before. Rather than relitigate the choices of 2002 and 2003, Mr. Obama should seek to inform decisions he may have to make in 2009 and 2010 as commander in chief. It’s not too late for him to fit some new items into his agenda.

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