Iraq: 'A Grave & Deteriorating Situation'

What should the U.S. do in Iraq? A student reading offers an overview of the five most discussed strategies, issues associated with each, and suggestions for class activities and student inquiry.

To the Teacher:

Americans are caught up in a national debate about the future course of the United States in Iraq. President Bush's policy for Iraq now commands the support of only 27 percent of Americans, and the Iraq Study Group has reported that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating."
What should the U.S. do? The student reading below offers an overview of the five most discussed strategies, issues associated with each, and suggestions for class activities and student inquiry.
See the high school section of TeachableMoment for sets of background materials dealing with events and issues on Iraq, 2002-2006.

Student Reading:

Five Strategies for Iraq, Part One

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." This is the opening sentence of the executive summary of a report released in December 2006 by the Iraq Study Group (ISG). It explains: "Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, Al Qaeda and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability.
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized."
In September the ISG spent four days in Baghdad, where their grim views on the Iraq situation reached a turning point. "They found the trip so harrowing, they said, that they wondered if they could afford to wait to speak out about the disaster in Iraq," reported the New York Times on December 8, 2006.
"Like other visitors, they arrived on a C-130 transport plane that performed a plunging corkscrew maneuver to avoid insurgent fire while landing at Baghdad's airport. Then they were bundled into flak jackets and helmets and rushed onto attack helicopters for the five-minute flight to the Green Zone, the military-controlled neighborhood that is sealed off from the city. There they were placed in a fleet of armored Humvees, each with a medic seated in the back to offer first aid in the event of a rocket attack. The roar of the Humvees' engines could not mask the sound of explosions from car bombs outside the Green Zone. The security measures had been routine for most of the American occupation, but they were still jarring to these first-time visitors to the war zone." (New York Times, 12/8/06)
What should the United States do? Here are five different answers to this question proposed by various U.S. leaders. (Part One of the reading includes the first two answers, Part Two includes the other three.)
1. Follow the Iraq Study Group Recommendations
The Iraq Study Group made 79 recommendations, all of which should be acted on because in the ISG view they represent a comprehensive strategy. The ISG consisted of five Republicans and five Democrats who reached consensus for their report.
Its three most crucial points include:
a. Shift U.S. military emphasis from combat toward training and support for
Iraq's army by embedding American advisors in it. All combat brigades "not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq" by the first quarter of 2008.
Issues: For some time U.S. military have been training Iraq's army, but it is poorly equipped and lacks strong leadership. Its soldiers are frequently absent. Embedded American soldiers could well be in great danger without U.S. military support. Another issue is whether Shiites, who make up an overwhelming majority of both the army and the police, would be motivated to fight Shiite militias, if necessary. And even if Iraq army training were successful, it is unclear how many American troops might be withdrawn.
b. Emphasize to Iraq's leaders that the U.S. commitment to Iraq is not open-ended and requires progress in "national reconciliation, security, and governance." Implicit would be a U.S. threat to leave if Iraqis don't make this progress.
Issues: In calling for national reconciliation, the Iraq Study Group asks Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to overcome serious religious, ethnic, and political differences. Otherwise, the report declared, "the security situation cannot improve." Since "national reconciliation" has not occurred in almost four years, it is unclear what will motivate the three major groups to overcome antagonisms that have sparked sectarian violence for many months.
c. Enlist the help of countries, including Iran and Syria, that have an important stake in preventing Iraq's slide into chaos.
Issues: The leaders of Iran and Syria may have reason to think that they will ultimately gain by chaos in Iraq. Probably more important: Given their poor relations with the U.S., why should they want to help? What's in it for them? In any case, President Bush has stated repeatedly that he will not engage in direct talks until Iran stops enriching uranium and Syria stops its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Iran's foreign minister has said his country has no interest in talks unless the U.S. commits to withdrawing its troops from Iraq.
(Note: access to the complete ISG Report is available through, among other sources,
2. Send in more troops (John McCain)
Senator McCain (R-AZ) argues for sending in at least 20,000 more troops to provide security, especially in Baghdad. McCain said that the U.S. "should not characterize such a redeployment as 'short-term' or place a timetable on its presence. Our troops should be sent to Baghdad—or anywhere in Iraq—in order to complete a defined mission, not to serve until some predetermined date passes. Only by cracking down on independent militias, reducing criminal and terrorist activity, and protecting the population and key infrastructure—none of which can be accomplished without more troops—can a political settlement begin to take hold." (12/6/06)
Issues: With some success, the U.S. has repeatedly sent more troops into such Iraqi cities as Ramadi and into Baghdad neighborhoods to pacify them. But in time, the troops were called upon to go elsewhere, after which the insurgents reappeared and the same security issues recurred. More U.S. troops and more U.S. air attacks have also meant inevitably the maiming and killing of innocent civilians.
For example: "Angry residents of a village north of Baghdad fired weapons in the air as they buried victims of an American airstrike, Reuters reported. The American military said that the airstrike was against militants of Al Qaeda who had fought with troops.  Local officials in the village said there were 17 killed, but that they included 6 women and 5 children. Hundreds of chanting residents marched on Saturday firing shots and carrying banners that condemned 'mass killing by the occupation forces,' Reuters said." (New York Times, 12/10/06).
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Right now, sectarian differences between Shiites and Sunnis are the major cause for the violence in Iraq. What do you understand those differences to be? If you don't understand them, how might you learn more about them?
3. In addition to the Iraqi army and other Iraqi security forces like the police, the U.S. has 140,000 soldiers in the country. Insurgents, Shiite and Sunni militias, terrorists, and criminals are far fewer in number. What is your understanding of why, then, American and Iraqi troops and other security forces have been unable to stop the violence? If you have no satisfactory answer, what sources of information might help you to understand?

Student Reading:

Five Strategies for Iraq, Part Two

3. Withdraw forces quickly (Russ Feingold, Dennis Kucinich, John Kerry, John Murtha)
Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) has proposed legislation to require that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq by July 1, 2007. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has called for Congress to cut funding for the war and to bring troops home immediately. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has urged getting out of Iraq in the next six to eight months. Representative John Murtha (D-PA) would "immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces."
Issues: Opponents of this course think U.S. withdrawal might lead to a heightened civil war in Iraq. They think it might also lead predominately Sunni countries (like Saudi Arabia) or predominately Shiite countries (like Iraq) to intervene directly in Iraq to protect their fellow sect members and their own security interests.
4. Divide Iraq into three statelets (Peter Galbraith, John Biden)
Some have proposed dividing Iraq into three stateletsóKurdistan in the north, a Sunni region in the center, and a Shiite republic in the south. The original author of this proposal, Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and a consultant to the Kurds, wrote more than two years ago, "In my view, Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state." Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) has been the chief congressional supporter of this idea.
Issues: Polls indicate that most Iraqis want a unitary state. Such a division would also have to take into consideration the fact that most of Iraq's valuable oil reserves and the main source of its national income are in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. If there were an agreement to share oil wealth, would Sunnis trust Shiites and Kurds to divide profits fairly with them? And what about profits from oil fields yet to be discovered?
5. Continue Bush administration strategy
President Bush says the U.S. objective in Iraq is "a government which can sustain, govern and defend itself, and will be an ally, against this movement [Al Qaeda] that is threatening peace and stability." (12/7/06) The president's most recent comments on Iraq, including after the Iraq Study Group issued its report, indicate that he continues to defend major elements of his existing strategy. While he supports training the Iraqi army, he opposes pulling back combat troops, sending in more troops or withdrawing any forces on a timetable.
Issues: Most Americans think the U.S. is trapped in a no-win situation and do not support the president's strategy. In a survey by Associated Press-Ipsos (12/4/06-12/8/06), 71 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the president's policies in Iraq; only 27 percent expressed support for them.
(Note: for further detail on each strategy see the website of the officials most closely associated with it.)
Some conclusions
The 2006 congressional elections confirmed that most Americans appear to agree with the Iraq Study Group statement: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."
In Congress, there is wide agreement that the U.S. strategy should include:
  • some kind of phased withdrawal, but not on a specific timetable
  • involving Iraq's neighbors in helping to stabilize the country
  • training Iraq's police forces and army
  • obtaining economic aid, political help, and peacekeeping forces from other nations
None of those who support one or some combination of the five strategies can guarantee success in Iraq. The results of any strategy are unpredictable and might make the situation in Iraq worse—possibly much worse.
President Bush makes the final decisions on strategy and will announce them, he said, after he has reviewed not only the ISG recommendations but also those from the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council.
Congress has the power to restrain the president's decisions through, for example, refusing to authorize funding for themóbut has not made any serious effort to do so.
On October 6, the House of Representatives voted 376-50 in favor of a Defense Appropriations bill that specifically stated opposition to permanent military bases in Iraq. But most supporters of bringing U.S. troops home soon do not say they support withdrawing all the troops. And the U.S. now has huge military bases in Iraq that seem very permanent. Balad, a logistical support air base, houses 20,000 soldiers in air-conditioned containers. Most never leave the base or interact with an Iraqi. Balad has the amenities of an American town with a miniature golf course, a Pizza Hut, and a 24-hour Burger King. (, 2/4/06) Unless there is a dramatic change in policy, U.S. troops will be in Iraq "for a long, long time," as James Baker, co-chairman of the ISG, said when its report was made public.
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. After President Bush announces his decision about any course changes he proposes for Iraq, have students discuss their reactions to them in the light of the situation there.

Fish Bowl

A "fish bowl" is one way to engage the entire class in a small-group dialogue. This technique is especially useful when emotions are heated or when students bring vastly different perceptions to a controversial topic.
Invite five to seven students to begin the conversation. Ask them to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that this group reflects diverse points of view on the issue.
Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl. There will then be a smaller circle within a larger circle. Only people in the fish bowl can speak; thus, the process facilitates a kind of sustained, focused listening that is not often witnessed in a high school classroom.
Begin by asking a question and invite students in the fish bowl to speak to it. In this case, for example, the teacher might ask: Do you agree with the Iraq Study Group that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating?" Why or why not? Invite each student in the fish bowl, in turn, to respond without being interrupted. Then allow time for clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fish bowl.
After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Continue using this same procedure with additional questions about each of the proposed strategies.
Allow time at the end of the session for student assessment of the fish bowl experience. Were all points of view heard? Respected? What new ideas, questions, and facts were introduced into the discussion that complicated your thinking about an issue? Do you now hold any different views than you did before the fish bowl?

For inquiry

Student might explore:
  • Significant unanswered questions during class discussion and the fish bowl
  • Origins of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds
  • Major leaders of each group-their backgrounds and views
  • Similarities and differences between U.S. wars in Iraq and Vietnam

For writing and citizenship

Write a letter to your representative, one of your senators, or the president expressing your views about the situation in Iraq, what should be done about it, and why.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: