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Obama and Iraq's Uncertain Future

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, December 2010

Right after his inauguration, President Barack Obama started to fulfill his campaign promise to end the Iraqi war. In February 2009, he announced a plan to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq while strengthening Iraq's security forces and supporting its government. This plan was a compromise between views of the military commanders, who opposed a hurried withdrawal that might ignite a sectarian war, and the civilian advisers who wanted a quick end to the war. Starting in June 2009, the U.S. military began turning over cities to Iraqi security forces while retreating to their bases. During the same month, Obama told Egyptians at Cairo University that the U.S. “will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner and never as a patron.”

The situation became complicated in March 2010. Iraq's parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner, throwing the country into a political crisis and threatening Obama's plan to end U.S. combat activities. The incumbent Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite coalition lost the elections by two seats, was determined to stay in power at any cost. He was supported by Iran, which has intervened to rally Iraqi Shiite parties behind al-Maliki. At the same time, former prime minster, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc won the largest number of seats in the parliamentary elections, was unable to form a new government. This deadlock led to increased violence across the county. Vice President Joe Biden has made several trips to Baghdad and numerous phone calls from Washington urging its political leaders to end the stalemate and to put the nation's interests ahead of their own. However, the U.S. could not persuade the two rivals to accept a power-sharing plan, which would allow al-Maliki to keep the post of prime minister but with reduced power and would create a national security council, headed by Allawi.

Despite Iraq's uncertain political future, Obama has stuck with his draw-down schedule. Nearly 100,000 troops have been withdrawn since he came to office, leaving behind nearly 50,000 troops to advise and assist Iraqi forces, support Iraq's counterterrorism campaign, and protect American diplomats and civilians. On August 31, 2010, Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and the restoration of that country's sovereignty. He told the American people that “all troops will leave [Iraq] by the end of next year.”

Iraq's security conditions are much better today than it was during the sectarian war. Nevertheless, many American troops who remain in Iraq recognize that the fighting is not over because the new mission, Operation New Dawn, still exposes them to danger. Some casualties are expected as they accompany Iraqi forces on combat missions. For example, U.S. pilots continue to provide air cover for Iraqi ground troops and U.S. Special Forces join the Iraqis in fighting insurgents.
Iraqis are worried about their country's future. In their view, the war is not over. Many believe that Obama pulled troops out prematurely and they doubt that Iraqi forces are strong enough to handle security matters on their own. The U.S. has been criticized for leaving when Iraq is still caught in a political crisis, with only a caretaker government that has no authority to make new decisions or ratify legislation. The new parliament has only met once for few minutes since the March elections. As the stalemate continued, al-Maliki called on his rivals to show flexibility and come to the table to negotiate forming a government of national unity. With Tehran's encouragement, Moqtada al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. Shiite cleric who is studying in Iran, threw his weight behind al-Maliki who has released many of al-Sadr's supporters from jail or detention. Al-Sadr's support moved al-Maliki a step closer to forming a new government but he was still 30 seats short of the majority needed in parliament to reappoint him as prime minister. He still had to deal with the Kurdish coalition (57 seats), which insisted on including the Iraqiya in any power-sharing arrangement.

After more than eight months of stalemate, the political crisis eased somewhat. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, brokered a power-sharing deal that divided the top government posts among the three largest elected political blocs. On November 11, 2010, the parliament was convened for the second time since the March elections and appointed al-Maliki prime minister, Talabani president and Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of the Iraqiya party, speaker of the parliament. Meanwhile, Allawi was to head a new council after the legislators approved its creation.

Al-Maliki was authorized to form a government and to present a cabinet slate to the parliament in 30 days. It has not been easy for him to put together an inclusive administration. The distribution of ministries is problematic. Al-Maliki asked the political parties to nominate three names for cabinet posts but insisted that he has the final say on who gets what cabinet. This was rejected by his arch rival Allawi, leading al-Maliki to warn that “If anyone decides not to join, we are ready to form it without them.”

It is hard to predict whether the new power-sharing coalition members can work together for the good of the country. The situation is very fragile and much depends on whether al-Maliki fulfills the promises he has made. Iraqiya's legislators have already walked out of the second session to protest their colleagues' failure to remove the law banning former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from holding security-related or government positions. Although the speaker of parliament, a Sunni, stayed behind, he later joined the walkout. They soon returned and resumed their parliamentary duties. Allawi also made it clear that he will only join the government if al-Maliki honored the power-sharing agreement and that the proposed council has real power. This means difficulties ahead because the Sunni minority will not consider the new government legitimate without Allawi's participation.

The continuation of al-Maliki as prime minister is a victory for Iran, not the U.S. He was quick to announce that his country will be fine without the American military presence, and he expects U.S. troops to pull out of Iraq at the end of next year as Obama had announced. This is a political statement and an optimistic one because the Iraqi security forces are not yet ready to shoulder this big responsibility. Although al-Qaeda in Iraq is weak, it is not defeated and is still capable of striking across the country. This is evident in the increased number of attacks on police, security personnel, and civilians since the inconclusive elections in March. Senior members of the Iraqi military have privately admitted that they need American forces to stay for many years to keep the country from sliding into a sectarian war. This assessment is shared by top U.S. military brass who hoped that they would be asked to stay beyond the end of 2011-an option that the Iraqi government could exercise under the terms of the bilateral security arrangement. Many Iraqis fear for their own future because their own “security forces are still untested and their political process has yet to show the kind of maturity that would provide Iraqis confidence that they are safe from the threat of more civil war.”

It was bad timing that Wikileaks released the State Department's secret diplomatic cables in November 2010. The leaks are liable to strain the relationship between Iraq and its Sunni Arab neighbors, which the U.S. is depending on to counter Iran's growing influence in Iraq in the future. The release of cables from the U.S. embassies and consulates around the world is likely to raise tension in the Middle East. Like other governments, Arab leaders make moderate and measured comments in public on regional problems, while talking more candidly in private with friends and allies. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah used undiplomatic words, calling al-Maliki an “Iranian agent” and a “liar”. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak went as far as advocating a military coup to topple the Iraqi regime. He advised Washington to “forget about democracy” because Iraq needs “a dictator”. Ryan C. Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said, 'Sunni Arab dislike of a Shiite ascendancy in Iraq is well known by Maliki. But this will exacerbate the problem and may push him closer to the Iranians.”

Relationship between Arab states and Iran is expected to worsen as a result of the Wikileaks' release of classified documents. The diplomatic cables reveal that the Persian Gulf States and Saudi Arabia forcefully urged the U.S. to attack Iran's nuclear facilities-a position similar to that of Israel. For example, the Saudi King repeatedly told American diplomats to “cut off the head of the snake” while there is still time. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa told General David H. Petraeus, then the head of the U.S. Central Command, that “The danger of letting [Iran's nuclear program] go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” An early diplomatic fallout over Wikileaks' release is that, from now on, foreign governments will be reluctant to speak candidly out of fear that the information might find its way to the media, causing problems on the home front.

Washington, D.C.
December 6, 2010

Mohamed El-Khawas
, Ph.D., is Professor of history and political science at the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.