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Democracy in Iraq

I want to bring your attention to something remarkable that General Bergner said in this week's roundtable with him (transcript here).  The whole thing is worth reading, and touches on military operations, Iran, and numerous other topics.  What I asked him about, however, was reconciliation.  We know from Dr. Kilcullen and others that the Surge is mainly a military plan to buy space for political progress.  It's been noted that the Iraqi central government has been on vacation, and we've talked about whether that is a sign of no progress, or a necessary space for some backchannel arguments.  What signs of progress, I asked, has General Bergner seen?

GEN. BERGNER:  Well, we have seen steady developments at the local level. And if you just went back over the last four weeks and kind of walked around west and northern areas of Baghdad, you would find that in Ramadi, they completed the Ramadi Covenant, which was a tribal-led but government-of-Iraq-involved and coalition -- or security-force-involved commitment to stop the violence and to work together. In Taji, about three weeks ago the sheikhs of Taji got together. They all signed a map, put their name next to the town that they represent. In Khalis, northwest of Baghdad, a similar commitment, I think by some 16 sheikhs representing 70-some others. And then in Baqubah, we've talked before about the tribal sheikhs and the provincial government and their security forces having reached some agreements on how they're going to work together and stop the violence.

So I could take you through Baghdad, as well. We've seen similar -- similar arrangements being grouped together in Amiriyah. We see similar ones in Ghazalia. The Ghazalia volunteers are now part of this local security force that's working with Iraqi and coalition forces. And then if I took you to south of Baghdad, in General Rick Lynch's area of operations in MND-Center, I could show you different groupings of 100 here, 400 there, where different individuals from the community have stepped forward and said, we want to stop help the violence, we want to work toward some sort of accommodation.

So there is a steady development at the local level as security improves and people feel like they can step forward and take that on. So we are encouraged by that. And you know overall in Anbar what that -- how that has profoundly changed. We've talked about that several times. And that's probably the most striking example of a place which just eight or 10 months ago nobody could have foreseen the change there. So, lots of momentum.

Much of it is enabled by the tactical momentum that the surge of operations is providing. But again, much work still to do. Still some very difficult ways ahead.

GRIM: I'd like to ask a quick follow-up about that. Under Saddam and, you know, for what amounts to living memory in Iraq, Iraq has been kind of a top-down society where the central government set the tone. What you're talking about is a lot of local efforts that are going to be kind of brought to bear -- I don't want to say against central government, but on the central government. Do you think that the nature of Iraqi society is changing in this regard, that it's becoming more of a bottom-up society, a locally driven society?

GEN. BERGNER: You know, that's a very good question, it's an interesting one, because on one level, it has been a centrally governed country, without question, but in this country the tribe, the family have always been the most powerful bond that the Iraqi people have felt. And so you have kind of a duality of centrally directed but, if you ask the people who they trust and who they want to work with, it's at the family, tribal and community level. So both of those exist and both of them are very real parts of the nature of Iraqi society.

What I hope you got a sense of in my initial comments was both of those are working, and if you looked at Baqubah as a pretty vivid example, that's a place where the local tribes and security forces are coming to these kinds of arrangements. And once they've gotten to that point, the Iraqi government, the central government, is coming in to connect and figure out so how do we provide this public distribution support that you need, because, as you said, that is a centrally directed food distribution program; how do we help improve the availability of fuel, because, as you said, that is a centrally controlled fuel distribution system still. So both of those are at work here, and that's really why it's so important to get them connected because you really need -- you need that confidence at the local level being reinforced and supported. They need to know their central government is going to actually do something for them.

What the general points to here are local, often tribal attempts to urge the central government in the direction of reconciliation, and to commit to reconciliation in their own areas.  This is what we would call a grassroots movement, if we saw it in America.  Such movements, properly organized, can become powerful even against entrenched interests willing to use violence against them -- we can look at the start of unions in America, for example.

If that proves to be the case, a grassroots movement of this type would provide very strong and stable foundation for a national political reconciliation.  It is, obviously, too soon to assert that is what will happen; but it is soon enough to notice that there is movement in that direction, in many areas across Iraq.

Things are changing in Iraq.  We're seeing the first waves of the gravity well we're building there, a well whose pull extends far beyond the borders of Iraq itself.  It's already strong enough to begin to exert its pull on the United Nations, which is suddenly willing to hedge its bets on success; and Sens. Durbin and Levin, who want to hedge theirs.  I'll say they are all welcome to do so.  If we can ask political reconciliation of the Iraqis, we can ask it of ourselves.  Anyone who wants to join us now in trying to help build success in Iraq, and stand against those who fight by murder and war crimes, is welcome aboard.  I don't care why they come, what their motives are, so long as they are willing to join the fight.

What we are seeing out of the Surge is a hint that success is possible -- including the least likely form of success, the kind many even on the right wrote off:  a democratic sea change in Iraqi society.  Watching the local communities and tribes start to bring about the reality they want, leading rather than following the central government, is inspiring. 

I hope it is not intoxicating.  I'm aware of my own biases, that I strongly desire to see the Iraqis pass through the fire to find a new hope and better life.  It's important to remember that these are early indications, reasons to hope and things to watch.  But they are there, all the same.