The end of empire
The Washington Post has an article describing operations by in an area south of Baghdad that features forces both American and Iraqi; Iraqi forces of high and low quality in an area that is part rural and part urban, in an area contested by Sunni and Shi'ite. The area is called the Shakariya triangle and a map of the area is shown below.
Image from Google Earth
The triangle's three points are Sadr al-Yusufiyah on the Euphrates to the northwest, the Jefur al-Sakur Bridge on the Euphrates to the south and Yusufiyah to the east. The region is a fault line between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab populations and a scene of flaring sectarian violence.
As they make the first sustained effort to seize the triangle, U.S. troops in recent days have discovered more than 100 large weapons caches ... This offensive is playing out in the 600-square-mile sector that is the 2-10 Mountain's area of operations, a mix of rural Sunni farmland to the north and west and a dense urban setting to the south and east.
As Shiite militias have gained strength across the region, they have been trying to move into cities such as Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah, escalating sectarian violence. The Iraqi army brigade in the region is having mixed success. A powerful and competent pair of battalions in the east is working hand-in-hand with U.S. forces, while two other Iraqi battalions in the west struggle with mass desertion.
In many ways, the area is representative of Iraq as a whole, with areas of great promise bordering others where progress is largely unknown. "It is a complex situation," said Col. Michael Kershaw, the U.S. brigade's commander. "We have two different realities, and we have to build on what we have in Mahmudiyah and move west, where in some ways we're starting at the beginning. It's going to take time."
One clue to just how much time it may take can be found in re-examining broadly similar historical events. And the closest analogue is probably Yugoslavia. For most of modern history Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, which contained an extraordinary diversity of ethnic communities who for long existed in a modus vivendi. But the Empire broke down when the rise of nationalism within it proved too strong for the imperial structure to contain. Kurdish nationalism, just to give one example, was already rising in the 19th century. The final demolition of the Ottoman Empire by Western Powers during the Great War did not stop these historical forces. Indeed the "decolonization" process following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire resembled in many ways the instability which swept through Africa after the collapse of European empires on that continent. The enormous convulsions in Armenia and Turkey and the Balkan Wars after the Armistice are all examples of what happens in the aftermath of a regime change.
If Iraq was at the eastern end of the Ottoman Empire, its western end was in the Balkans. The underlying ethnic tensions in the Balkans were masked by the emergence of the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia under the strongman Marshal Tito. Held together by an army that was once considered one of the finest in postwar Europe, it seemed the model of stability. Indeed, the 1984 Winter Olympic games were held in Sarajevo. The story of Yugoslavia's collapse after Tito's death, while not an exact analogue, provides an historical yardstick to measure just how long it takes for remnants of a fallen empire to rearrange themselves.
Like many of the political parties in Iraq, such as Moqtada al-Sadr or al-Qaeda in Iraq, Slobodan Miloševic' in Serbia and President Franjo Tudjman in Croatia sought to use the Yugoslav Armed Forces and its government agencies to advance their respective agendas. In the Balkans this led to an open conflict called the Yugoslav Wars, normally reckoned from 1991 and which continues, albeit in slow motion, to this very day. One can make the case that Saddam was to Iraq as Tito was to Yugoslavia; that the ethnic minorities in the Balkans have the counterparts in the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds of Iraq. One very striking difference between the two ex-Ottomans is that, except for fitful attempts by Russia to intervene in Yugoslavia and the arrival of some Jihadis in Kosovo, there was no foreign intervention to oppose NATO. Had hostile and powerful nations fueled the Yugoslav wars as Syria and Iran are now fueling their clients in Iraq, NATO might have found its task much harder. Indeed, had the United States undermined the European effort in Yugoslavia to the extent that Europe has diplomatically opposed American efforts in Iraq, events in the Balkans since may have been far different. Moreover, the international press never demonized Western efforts in former Yugoslavia to anything like the degree it depicts Iraq.
But to return to the question of "how much time" it may take to bring about a stable successor state in Iraq, the answer may possibly be at least as long as it has taken for the situation in Balkans to partially resolve itself. There are two interesting sets of maps at a Wikipedia entry which show what Yugoslavia looked like during the Balkan Wars and how it looks today. It is still a work in progress. Kosovo, for instance, is still under the administration of the United Nations. But the crisis in the Balkans had better publicity.