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New Perils in Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: April 24, 2009

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From flower shows (AFP) to ribbon cuttings, hints of normalcy are returning to Iraq. And yet, even as the United States turns its military focus to Afghanistan, experts in Iraqi politics warn that unresolved governance issues and mounting sectarian tensions--capped by a week of killings in the Iraqi capital (Aswat al-Iraq)--could test Washington's exit strategy.

A return to rampant violence in Iraq, where roughly 140,000 U.S. troops remain deployed, could have serious implications for the Obama administration's plan to ramp up deployments and training in the newly prioritized Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of war. Janet St. Laurent, a defense analyst with the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, told lawmakers in February 2009 that the Pentagon's planned ramp-up of forces in Afghanistan is largely contingent on a drawdown in Iraq (PDF). U.S. President Barack Obama echoed this when announcing his new strategy for the Afghan war a month later.

A number of experts have warned of the consequences of a premature U.S. withdrawal of sizeable forces from Iraq. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle, writing in Foreign Affairs with Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution, notes that a precipitous U.S. pullout could lead to a possible Iraqi military coup or an emboldened Iran. Walid Phares, director of the Future Terrorism Project in Washington, adds that jihadists in Syria and Saudi Arabia could also be strengthened, complicating the U.S. exit strategy. Others suggest a Turkish invasion of Kurdistan is possible if Kurdish separatists are not kept in check. And while the potential of these specific scenarios has diminished as the capability of Iraqi security forces has increased, internal and regional posturing still raise questions about Iraq's stability when U.S. forces do eventually leave. "No one can be certain whether Iraq can achieve a stable level of political accommodation to deal with its internal problems," wrote Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a February 2009 policy paper (PDF).

Chief among the internal challenges is a recent spike in sectarian attacks remniscent of 2006, when Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq was at its height. Late-April's suicide strikes targeting Iranian Shiite pilgrims has increased concern that Baathist and jihadi militants are regrouping (NYT). Violence against Sunni Awakening groups is also causing alarm. In late March, clashes between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and the so-called Sons of Iraq--who played an important role in helping to suppress al-Qaeda in Iraq--broke out following the arrest of an Awakening Council leader in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki justified the arrest by claiming al-Qaeda and the banned Baath Party had infiltrated the group (Alsumaria), though others have interpreted the arrest as motivated by a sectarian agenda (RFE/RL), a perception the U.S. military's top liaison with the councils acknowledges exists (NYT).

Amid the violence, meanwhile, political disputes persist. Nearly three months after January's provincial elections, councils in numerous provinces--Diyala and Basra among them--have not been seated, which has led to street protests and sectarian-fueled boycotts (LAT). Months of paralysis at the national level have also stalled legislative reforms, including passage of a hydrocarbon law which, coupled with declines in oil revenues, could deepen the country's economic crisis. Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group says Iraq needs a series of new political deals and bargains (CSMonitor) aimed at resolving key issues, such as a widening rift between Kurds and Arabs over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. William Spencer, executive director of the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, argues that political squabbles at the national level are rooted in an existential disagreement (Middle East Bulletin) on what constitutes the Iraqi state.

Analysts do find comfort in at least one aspect of Iraq's current predicament: lawmakers are eager for the steering wheel (NYT). CFR's International Affairs Fellow Lydia Khalil says Iraq has long been jockeying for control of its destiny, and Washington should oblige. President Barack Obama has repeated his commitment to having U.S. combat forces out of Iraqi cities by July 1 and out of the entire country by the end of 2011. But potential cracks in the timeline have emerged. U.S. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, told CNN earlier this month that he has the "flexibility to change" the withdrawal schedule should events on the ground warrant it, though he concedes any change would require Iraqi approval. And that, says Marc Lynch, an expert on Iraqi politics, is exactly why the U.S. should not deviate from its withdrawal schedule. The Baghdad government needs to strike power-sharing deals--especially with the country's Sunni Awakening leaders--"and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't," Lynch writes in Foreign Policy.

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