President Barack Obama's announcement Friday that the remaining thirty-nine thousand troops will leave Iraq at the end of the year was largely the result of Iraq's internal politics and a failure of U.S. policy to mend the rifts among the country's political players.
If the U.S. military were to keep three thousand to five thousand military "trainers" as planned, Iraq's parliament would have had to grant the force immunity. Obama finally realized this was not going to happen, due to the country's tense realities resulting from the March 2010 national election.
The 2010 election ended in a near draw between Nouri al-Maliki and chief rival Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc. A political stalemate was broken through a U.S.-backed deal in which Maliki was to remain prime minister and the defense minister was to have been chosen from the Iraqiya bloc. In turn, Allawi was to have headed a new national security council body.
However, once Maliki was sworn in as prime minister, he declined to accept Iraqiya's choices for defense minister, and the agreed-on national security body was never created. After months of frustration, the Iraqiya bloc came to see a vote granting immunity for U.S. forces in Iraq as a victory for Maliki unless the prime minister awarded Iraqiya the defense and security positions.
Mistrust runs deep on both sides. Maliki's supporters fear that the secular Allawi and his largely Sunni list would be a tool for insurgents or Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party to return to power. In turn, Allawi's coalition believes Maliki, a Shiite Islamist, is trying to create an Iranian-backed religious state.
In fact, Maliki's political flank is guarded by anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's forty representatives who have demanded all U.S. troops leave. The prime minister knows his partnership with Sadr has the blessing of his powerful neighbor Iran, while cutting a deal with Iraqiya would lose the Sadrists, enflame Iran, and risk the possibility of eventual betrayal by Iraqiya.
The current news is not good for the United States, as Maliki finds himself locked into a political arrangement with a movement that is hostile to the U.S. government and close with Tehran. The central question now is this: Will the country's current democratic system hold up over the long term, or will the deep suspicions borne of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule and the recent sectarian conflict lead the country back to a new authoritarian leader or a civil war?
The loss of U.S. troops will be most deeply felt by Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Force, its best weapon against al-Qaeda and Shiite extremist groups. The Counter-Terrorism Force benefitted from a long-standing partnership with U.S. special forces, which have provided helicopters and intelligence assets that enabled the elite Iraqi fighters to thwart its enemies. They will now lose those capabilities. For al-Qaeda-inspired groups or Shiite extremists wishing to destabilize the Iraqi government, the loss of such U.S. tools is welcome news.