Owed to the great commotion surrounding the second Gulf war and the subsequent public fall-out, the US liberation of Iraq may always be remembered as a dark moment of US foreign policy akin to Vietnam. However, in the midst of the hostilities, violence, squabbling amongst Iraqi factions and stumbling steps towards democracy, the significance of theUSinvasion is often forgotten.
As the US suffered a tainted foreign policy image and a general deterioration of perception amongst the Muslim community whilst becoming vilified for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is easy to paper over the failings, deep-rooted animosity amongst Iraq’s socio-ethnic patchwork and misdealing and underperformance by successive Iraqi governments as US errors of judgment.
Iraq became an Achilles heel of George W. Bush and a great handicap for the US at home and abroad and both politically and economically. However, as the months wind down towards the end of 2011, where the remaining 45,000 or so US troops are set to withdraw from Iraq as part of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), there are increasing voices within the Iraqi political spectrum calling for an extension of this deadline, realising the stability that the US presence provides and the fragile nature of Iraq.
Whilst Iraq’s transition from brutal dictatorship to democracy has not been perfect, it is nevertheless a remarkable milestone. Iraq has made great strides in recent years particularly in the field of security but reconciliation has been as difficult as ever owed to the fragmented Iraqi socio-ethnic mosaic and the entrenched mistrust amongst disparate groups that has made the sharing of the Iraqi cake all that more difficult.
It is often overlooked that not only did the current government formation set a world record but that the cabinet is still not formally concluded months after the deadlock to form government was broken. Whilst politicians entered the agreement through gritted teeth and under a cloud of compromise there are growing signs of fractures amongst the current alliance. Simply put Iraqi politicians have spent more time squabbling within the political chambers than delivering services to the people on the streets.
Ayad Allawi of Al-Iraqiya, who won the majority vote at the elections, has made a number of threats to leave government and has been critical of been treated “not as a partner but as a participant.” Allawi refused to take the post as the head of National Council for Strategic Policy owed to disputes with Nouri al-Maliki around powers that he would be afforded, with al-Iraqiya demanding more than just symbolic posts with no real power but with al-Maliki unwilling to relinquish his executive decision making status.
The current predicament in Baghdad is overshadowed with a number of disputes with the KRG which have festered over many years through constant foot-dragging, side-stepping and half-hearted approach to resolution from Baghdad.
Kirkuk continues to be at the top of the contentious issues over disputed territories. In spite of a clear road map for the resolution of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, it has been continuously put on the shelf and the constitutional articles have not been implemented. Furthermore, althoughKirkukwas a key condition ahead of the agreement of Kurdistan parties to back a new coalition in Baghdad, in reality practical steps have not been undertaken to finally diffuse this long-time ticking time-bomb.
Devastating bombings in recent weeks have highlighted the tentative nature of Kirkuk. Al-Qaeda and insurgent groups continue to try and ignite ethnic strife and fuel animosity amongst the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. The sensitive climate was further highlighted with the Arab uproar when Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to Kirkuk in March under the pretext of protecting the Kurdish inhabitants ahead of mass protests that were organised. Whilst the situation was quickly diffused, it showed how sentiments can explode at any time and where ethnic loyalties clearly lie.
The US has highlighted Kirkuk as biggest danger toIraq’s stability post withdrawal. Friction between the Erbil andBaghdad, fragile coalitions, a loose national partnership and with questions around the effectiveness and logistical readiness of the Iraqi security apparatus, this has bolstered the case for a US stay beyond 2011.
The Kurdish support for such long-termUSpresence and indeed permanent bases inKurdistanis nothing new and where recently reaffirmed by Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
However, al-Maliki’s openness to extending the US stay is a sign of the importance most Iraqi’s increasingly pin to an extended US presence on their soil. Officially, al-Maliki has stated that he will proceed with national dialogue with rival blocs to reach consensus on extending the SOFA agreement, but almost certainly secret talks have been ongoing behind the scenes for several months with US military officials.
The top officer of the Iraqi army, General Babaker Zebari, previously stated that US forces will be needed until 2020.
Clearly, after the enormous sacrifices in preserving a stable Iraq and indeed a stable Middle east, the US will not want to walk away all too easily.Iraq was never a short-term project, regardless of the presence of troops on the ground. Influence and interest in a region or country is not just about the number of troops, the web of intelligence and entanglement is much deeper. The US will want to be seen to respect Iraqi sovereignty from a public perspective but in the background will be pressuring to maintain a strong hand in the direction of the Iraqi government, defeat of radical forces and ensuring equilibrium in the region not least because ofIran.
US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates has openly admitted that other than maintaining stability inIraq, the priority for troop extension is to send a strong warning toIranthat the US will not pull out of the Middle East. Iranian and to a lesser extent Turkish and other Sunni Arab meddling in Iraq is already a key handicap for reconciliation and any hasty US withdrawal when the Iraqi project is clearly not complete will only enlarge the ethnic and sectarian divide and increase interference by neighbouring countries.
Iranian influence on Baghdad is evident and has somewhat contributed to the divided political lines. The US hand in Iraq, is not just designed to keep the Iranians at bay in Baghdad, but to ensure Iranians are hampered in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and beyond.
It is somewhat unsurprising that the main group who vehemently oppose US presence is the pro-Iranian group of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who has threatened to recommence violence if US forces stay beyond the deadline.
Aside from providing critical security over the years, Washington has had an instrumental hand in forcing the Iraqi hand to end a number of political impasses. In fact many symbolic agreements where only achieved with frantic American jockeying in the background.
It is increasingly acknowledged that the same mediation will be needed to ensure political stability inIraq, especially if the current government breaks down. Whilst progress has been achieved at a painstaking pace, it can unravel and unwind at a much faster pace. Progress inIraqis very much reversible.
Keeping US troops in Iraq will not only have repercussions in Iraq. It will also highlight a major u-turn for US President Barack Obama, whose key election pledge was to withdraw forces fromIraqas quickly as possible.
The top priority of the US should no longer be security but ensuring the establishment of a strong political and economic foundation. Pushing for the implementation of roadmaps for resolving disputed territories, sharing of natural resources, affective power sharing formula and bridging sectarian divides is the only long-term answer.
The US needs to apply pressure to finally force the Kirkuk issue and seek long-term resolutions to the increasing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad. Too many critical differences have been too often brushed under the political rug for the sake of short-term gains at the time.
It must not be forgotten that the significant US surge strategy was to only provide Iraqis with “breathing space” to reconcile their difference and find political concord. However, this was far from achieved with many of the measurements set by the US all those years ago still not met.
Without resolving the true underlining issues that continue to plague Iraq and the establishment of am affective power-sharing system via loose federations, US presence for decades more will not solve core issues.
While the US was a long-time scapegoat for the Iraqi downward spiral, it is time for Iraqi politicians to shoulder the responsibility of tackling corruption, unemployment and security and build rebuild their house for the future.