The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the diverse ethnic and sectarian communities in Iraq are engaged in an unprecedented discussion about their national identity. But the envoy also notes that sectarian violence among Iraqis has become a greater threat to the country's security than the insurgency or foreign terrorism.
Testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Ambassador Khalilzad said the decision by Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims to participate in the country's political process represents a "tectonic shift" in that community's political orientation. The ambassador said Shiites have advanced the Iraqi political process through restraint in the face of terrorist provocation. He added that Kurds have also contributed to the dialogue through a commitment to remain part of Iraq. Khalilzad said this is an unprecedented development in a country where Iraqi identity was once determined by imperial powers or autocrats.
"Now, for the first time, all Iraqis have participated in the elections,” said the ambassador. “They have sat across the table from each other, arguing about federalism, arguing about, say, the nature of the state, what powers should be given to what institutions, rules and procedures for decision-making, programs and so on."
But Democratic Party Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware said his trips to Iraq lead him to a different assessment of Iraqi identity. "My impression is that there is a growing identification, ‘I'm Sunni,’ ‘I'm Shia,’ as opposed to, ‘I'm Iraqi.’ So count me as a skeptic on that."
Another Democrat, California Senator Barbara Boxer cited figures, which indicate that incidents of sectarian violence in Iraq have increased from 20 to 250 per month since last year. Senator Boxer also quoted from a Washington Post newspaper report in which a Sunni legislator questions the viability of the new Iraqi government.
"Quote: 'The parliament cannot reach practical solutions because their minds are concerned only with their sect and not the interests of the nation. It looks like this government is going to collapse very soon.' A Shiite legislator in the same article says, 'Certainly, what is happening is the start of the civil war.' That's a quote," said Senator Boxer.
Ambassador Khalilzad rejected those statements as political rhetoric. But he acknowledged that sectarianism represents a fault line in Iraqi society, which is being exploited by terrorists bent on toppling the country's new government. He also pointed to a growing split between the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaida.
"A divide has opened up between the Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgency and al-Qaida and irreconcilable elements,” said Ambassador Khalilzad, “as evidenced by the fact that some insurgent groups have offered to provide intelligence or to conduct operations against the terrorists."
Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island noted that Iraq has so far cost hundreds of billions of dollars, 2500 American military deaths and even more Iraqi lives. Chafee then asked about America's future military commitment.
"Do you honestly foresee a permanent presence, American military presence, in the Middle East?"
The ambassador replied, "Those are decisions that are, of course, way above my pay grade. But certainly I think the military is an element of our strategy – it has got to be to deal with the problems. How we configure our military posture to deal with the problems of the region as an element of the overall strategy, I'll leave it to the Pentagon planners and to the Secretary of Defense."
Ambassador Khalilzad said America should not abandon Iraq, not only because of its strategic interest in the Middle East, but also for moral reasons, because the United States has, as he put it, "a role in bringing about this set of circumstances in which Iraqis find themselves."