During the long presidential campaign that ended with a victory for Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) on November 4, few issues defined the candidates as much as the war in Iraq. President-elect Obama vowed to end the war and redeploy troops within sixteen months of taking office; his counterpart, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), said he planned to stay in the fight. With the war for the White House now over, however, politics and policy are headed for a collision course. On Iraq, that means coming to terms with diminishing U.S. influence in Baghdad, experts say.
The immediate focus for Washington war planners will be the terms under which U.S. troops in Iraq operate. A UN Security Council resolution authorizing the presence of foreign forces expires at the end of 2008, and the Bush administration is negotiating with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government for an extension. The status of that agreement has been a political football for months; Iraqi officials say they expect action on a draft plan within days (AP), though a string of prickly issues continues to divide the governments. One interim solution might be an extension of the Security Council resolution; some have called this plan the Bush administration's "fallback option" (WashTimes).
Even if the two sides ink a deal on troop and contractor issues before the first of the year, other changes may weaken Washington's influence. On financial issues, for instance, international auditors have enjoyed open access to Iraq's government spending data courtesy of a 2003 UN measure which, like the troop mandate, expires on January 1. These auditors already have announced plan to relinquish oversight of Iraq's books, causing consternation among observers troubled by accounting irregularities such as hundreds of millions of dollars in missing revenue (PDF). Joseph A. Christoff, director of international affairs and trade for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which has audited Iraq's finances, tells CFR.org that closing the door to international auditors will destroy any transparency in Iraq's already controversial expenditures. In an email response to questions, Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, says corruption is already rampant in Iraq's budget process; removing oversight, he says, will only make it more so.
U.S. military operations could face new legal challenges, too. For instance, if the draft security pact being negotiated is approved without a substantial overhaul, after January 1 U.S. raids or patrol missions would require prior approval from Iraqi command centers; Iraqis detained by U.S. forces would need to be handed over to local authorities (NYT); and by July 2009, the Americans would be required to relinquish security in Iraq's cities, towns, and villages. Taken together, says Col. Pete Mansoor, a former advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, the changes could give Iraqi lawmakers a free pass to govern with an iron fist (USAToday). "We are banking on the goodwill of the Iraqi government to make exceptions to the agreement if conditions deteriorate," says Mansoor. "But what if the government is causing the deterioration?"
The ballot box could provide that answer; Iraq's political balance of power faces a serious test in the form of provincial elections, now scheduled for before January 31. Splits within the main Shiite bloc hint at a broader struggle for influence. Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts "a decade or more of painful adjustments and power struggles" between Iraqi factions (WashTimes). The extent to which Washington can preserve its leverage during periods of transition in both countries remains unclear. But some analysts say leverage already has shifted east, toward Iran, which has deep historical ties to Iraq's current crop of leaders. Ghassan al-Attiyah, an analyst with the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy in London, tells the Washington Post the security pact being negotiated with the U.S. amounts to a battle for influence between Washington and Tehran. A recent analysis of Iranian strategy in Iraq by the Combating Terrorism Center, meanwhile, suggests the mullahs already have the upper hand.