Slippery Slope to Civil War in Iraq?

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," March 25, 2006, that was edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: The world marked the third anniversary of the war in Iraq this week amid continuing reports that the sectarian violence there could become all-out civil war. Just how accurate is that assessment?

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; he joins me now from Washington.

Reuel, thanks for joining us.


GIGOT: You've been to Iraq many times. You know all the players. How close is it, really, to civil war?

GERECHT: Well, I mean, if you use the phrase civil war it means something like what we saw in Algeria between 1990 and 1994, I'd say we're still a good distance from such a cataclysmic event. However, I would have to say that the intensifying sectarian strife that we have seen is worrisome. And that if it continues to grow worse, particularly in Baghdad, you could see an Algeria situation within a year, at most two.

GIGOT: The president this week mentioned Tal Afar, a city in the Sunni Triangle that we cleared out of terrorists. It had been a stronghold and now Iraqi troops, Iraqi forces are running it. Is that the kind of example, that could be replicated in Samara and Baghdad and larger cities?

GERECHT: Well, I mean, you hope so. And we'll have to see how well the Iraqis do. I think the key has always been the American component. And certainly what you need to see is a greater effort to clear out Baghdad.

I mean, it's impossible, I think, for the Bush administration to get better reporting if the journalists in Baghdad quite naturally, quite understandably can't go out of their homes without fear of being kidnapped or being beheaded. And we haven't yet seen a really serious effort to corner and to diminish the insurgency in Baghdad.

GIGOT: But this effort is going to depend on Iraqi is it not? Because while Americans can help we're playing a less and less overt role there in that anti-insurgency operation.

GERECHT: Well, it's true. That is, I have to say, the worrisome bit. I mean, there is the understandable desire to have Iraqis play more of a role, but it's quite clear that the most effective counter-insurgency force in Iraq are the Americans. I mean, Tal Afar is a good example of that. So, they're trying to figure out a mix here. And I think a better mix would be a greater U.S. presence, but we're not on that trajectory. It's clear now that the Americans intend to reduce their numbers, so it's a race here.

GIGOT: But we hear an argument a lot in Washington, that somehow the American forces there the cause of the violence. That if we pulled out our troops, reduced our presence, narrowed our footprint, then somehow this violence would be reduced and there would be less sectarian tension. What do you think of that argument?

GERECHT: I don't think it's a very good analysis. And certainly, if you look at Tal Afar, I mean, there was a wonderful piece done by Lawrence Kaplan, in the most recent issue of "The New Republic." I think it shows quite clearly that even the Sunni zones that when the Americans actually clear out a town and they bring peace and order to the place, that you actually have the natives being somewhat thankful.

I think this light footprint theory has got us into a lot of trouble. I think some sincerely believe it, but it's also a convenient excuse to reduce the U.S. troop presence, saying it's going to help. And I think if you look at the Sunni Triangle, not having American troops out patrolling more aggressively certainly has not helped the situation.

GIGOT: You're an expert on the Shiites. You know them very well. One of the things that struck me is how much restraint they've shown, despite all the provocations over the last three years. Do you think that, that center, that restraint is going to hold, here, as we move into another critical period of forming a new government?

GERECHT: Well, I'd say it's holding. I mean, it certainly has frayed a bit since the attack on the Shrine in Samarra. That has produced, I think, pretty deep scaring. But it is holding. It has not lost, which most importantly, you see no one on the Shiite side advocating any type of political idea, any type of political system which isn't democratic. Whatever dictatorial elements are there, are being suppressed. Now you've got independent militias, you've got problems with Shiite militias inside the ministries but this is still, I think, manageable so long as the political progress continues and you do not have many more horrific incidents like we saw in Samarra.

GIGOT: Reuel, very quickly, would it help if President Bush went over to Baghdad and tried to broker some kind of new government with the politicians there?

GERECHT: No, I don't think so. I mean, I think Ambassador Khalilzad is doing a pretty good job. I think this is a very difficult process. Like all things Iraqi, it's a tightrope act. They'll go right out to the precipice and then probably cut a deal. And I don't think the intrusion of the president directly would help things. It might actually be counter productive.

GIGOT: OK, Reuel Gerecht, thanks being with us.

GERECHT: My pleasure.

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