What Will Be Left of Iraq?

| Thu Feb. 2, 2006 3:03 PM EST

Over the past month, insurgent attacks in Iraq have decreased somewhat—not that a drop from 100 attacks a day to 83 a day means that everything's fine and peaceful, but it is somewhat notable—and military commanders are reportedly discussing a major troop drawdown by the end of 2006, despite President Bush's recent insistence, during the State of the Union, that he was planning on "staying the course." Earlier this week, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, predicted that the number of U.S. and foreign troops would fall below 100,000 by the end of the year. And: "By the end of 2007," said al-Rubaie, "the overwhelming majority of the multinational forces will have left the country."

Al-Rubaie's prediction, of course, depends on a number of things: whether the relative decline in violence is permanent or just a statistical blip; whether the new Iraqi government can hold itself together and develop its own security force that can keep the country at least nominally stable. The usual issues. And then there's the whole "civil war" question. As Dexter Filkins of the New York Times pointed out, the fall in insurgent violence has been counterbalanced by a sharp rise in sectarian violence of late—between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as Sunnis and Kurds. The new fundamentalist government is becoming increasingly radical, so things don't look good on this front at all. If the various groups in Iraq can't reach any sort of decent political compromise, the United States will have to decide whether it wants to try use its military to break up the fighting between sectarian groups—a nearly impossible task—or continue drawing down regardless and leave the country to its own (presumably bloody) devices.

And if and when the U.S. does start leaving Iraq, what will it leave behind? The president has already announced that further aid for reconstruction will no longer be flowing to Iraq, and Western private contractors are already leaving the country. "We are not done by any stretch of the imagination," said the vice-president of one company, "but we are drawing down." It's true that much of the reconstruction was riddled by corruption, graft, and incompetence, as has been made clear by multiple government reports of late, the alternative to a shoddy reconstruction job could be worse, from Iraq's point of view. The World Bank estimates that it will still cost $56 billion to rebuild the shattered infrastructure in the country, but none of that seems to be forthcoming from anyone. Few of the international donors who have already pledged about $13.5 billion, it seems, are willing to lay down any money so long as violence is still shaking the country and making it difficult for anything to get built.