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Comprehending Violence in Iraq

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With the administration’s long-awaited progress report on Iraq set to be delivered to Congress today, it seems clear that most of the contending arguments regarding the future of U.S. operations in Iraq share the assumption that Iraqi political leaders could settle the conflict if they were determined to do so. Those who support an indefinite commitment believe that forcefully suppressing violence is a precondition for political accommodation among the various political factions, and they claim that progress is being made. Those who want American forces to leave believe that the prospect of reduced protection is necessary to compel the accommodation that virtually everyone concedes has not yet occurred.


Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt whether Iraq’s leaders could control the violence even if they wanted to. The violence in Iraq is highly localized and does not have the features of organized conflict implied by the frequently used terms "insurgency" or "civil war." Moreover, the level of violence is probably substantially greater than is being officially reported -- an ominous challenge to the claim of significant progress.

These facts suggest a response is needed that is of a different order than the remedies now under discussion in Washington.

This is the original version of the op-ed that appeared in the Baltmore Sun on Sept. 10, 2007.  It contains some additional passages which were cut to save space as it went to press.  The op-ed was distilled from a slightly longer working paper which includes more technical detail and further explores the distinction between localized and centrally commanded violence.  Steinbruner elaborates on the ideas in the final paragraph in a second working paper: Potentially Constructive Implications of Disaster in Iraq.

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