As the continuous US adventure in Iraq enters yet another “new” dawn, the US can ill-afford to lose focus
Over the past six years or so, the US has have experienced many false dawns in their quest to attain success in Iraq. Many key milestones have been hailed in this time, in the hope that it would spark an elusive US exit strategy, but ominously Iraqi’s have too often failed to take real advantage.
Now it is hoped that the much hyped and celebrated US withdrawal from Iraqi towns and cities on June 30th 2009, would serve as one of the final “real” dawns of the new Iraq.
The withdrawal, as per Sofa agreement, was met with jubilation by Iraqis and subsequently declared a national holiday. While Iraqis rejoiced in public at the start of the end of a notorious occupation, behind closed doors in Baghdad and Washington, one couldn’t help but think that smiles in public were overshadowed with anxiety behind the scenes, particularly for the US.
After all, after so many years of sacrifice, lost lives and billions of dollars of investment that saw Iraq become a focal point of US foreign policy, the US can hardly just disregard or sidestep their Iraqi adventure. The US clearly has unfinished business in Iraq.
However, US President Barrack Obama has hardly kept his desire for a new stronger focus on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan a secret, has consistently vowed for swift withdrawal and was opposed to the original invasion. This has fanned fears that the US is no longer focused on Iraq.
Biden’s calls for national reconciliation
The US has expressed their concern in recent days on the lack of political reconciliation and has openly urged Iraqis to make greater efforts. Public calls by US Vice President Jo Biden, the man charged with seeing out the Iraqi mission, for the need of more progress was rebuffed by Baghdad. The vice presidents comments came as he underwent a visit to Baghdad to strengthen diplomatic ties and push Iraqi leaders for greater political progress.
The response from Baghdad implied that they were unwilling to endorse US meddling in its internal affairs. The strong response from Baghdad, shows growing assertiveness from Iraqis as the assume the “real sovereignty” talked about in Washington and may be playing on the sentiments of the Iraq public ahead of January 30th general election, who are seemingly only too keen to see US forces depart, regardless of the demons that this may itself bring.
Al-Maliki’s office reaffirmed its commitment to the national reconciliation process. Al-Maliki had earlier stated that the countries had “entered a new phase” on the back of the US withdrawal.
In spite of Baghdad’s warning to its US counterparts about trying to influence internal Iraqi affairs, Biden suggested that the Iraqi leaders were “very anxious” to maintain strategic understanding and engagements with the US moving forward.
Whilst hailing the significance of the withdrawal, Obama warned of “difficult days ahead” and once again reemphasised the importance of a “responsible” withdrawal. However, emphasise was equally placed on Iraqis new responsibility as they took control of their future. US combat divisions are due to withdraw from Iraq by September 2010 and all together from Iraq by the end of 2011.
In spite of public reassurance that the US had not lost focus, privately Biden gave the strongest indication yet that under their new “sovereignty”, the US was unlikely to come rushing back to keep peace if civil strife was to erupt in Iraq.
Biden has been a long-time advocate of federalism in Iraq, as a way of preserving peace and unity between Kurds, Sunni and Shiites, and it is somewhat unsurprising that he has focused on healing the national divide on his recent visit.
The end of the beginning
The beginning of the end for the US may well be the end of the beginning for the Iraqis. With the valuable cushion that the US has provided for so long, in spite of frequent criticism and backlash of their presence by Iraqis, ironically perhaps now as the US time in Iraq dwindles down, many Iraqis may now truly appreciate the relative if not forgotten comfort that the US has provided.
The US surge strategy was always a short-term measure designed to buy Iraqis time. It is ultimately down to the Iraqis to seek true compromise and build a new nation that can house such a contrasting array of views and ethnicities.
Regardless of the principles of democracy that now underpin the new Iraq, it is ultimately the true hunger of sides to settle their differences and end mistrust and animosity that will determine the future Iraq. This is easier said than done of course. Trying to keep an ethnic mosaic happy and working towards the notions of equality, are down to the individuals themselves and no amount of US military presence or political pushing can change that.
As the US have realised no amount of force or political pressure can make any side adopt any notion that they may not embrace at heart.
Key issues remain unresolved years after the advent of a new constitution and democratic elections. Growing discord between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over many fundamental issues such as oil production, federalism and disputed lands spell a clear long-term danger.
As we have seen with a rise in suicide bombings in recent weeks, the threat of terrorism and sectarian bloodshed are elements that can return to the stage ever so quickly. Too often long-term problems have been masked by short-term goals. An example of this are the Sunni Sawha councils, armed and founded by the US and a clear success story in the battle against al-Qaeda. If there demands are not satisfied, how long before they are keep onside?
The greater picture
Whilst the US may now provide added focus to Afghanistan, the US has to mindful of not needing to return to Iraq once they achieve a semblance of peace and unity in Afghanistan.
Issues and conflicts in the Middle East are delicately intertwined, and the US can ill afford to neglect the importance of the Iraqi domino in this puzzle. There is little in the Middle East that would have a greater ripple affect than instability and chaos in Iraq. The US has already underestimated the intricacy that is Iraq to its loss.
As future events will show, its unlikely that the US can simple afford to adopt a policy of “over to you now Iraqis” just yet.
As Obama’s speeches to the Muslim world have highlighted, however, the US is unwilling to put all its eggs in one basket. It needs the support of the greater Middle East in keeping the tentative and fragile peace. This is something that it simply can not do by itself.