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The Next Chapter in Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
July 23, 2009

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The Obama administration has made no secret of its desire to move Iraq down its list of priorities, behind Afghanistan, Iran, and a host of domestic issues. President Barack Obama's latest meeting in Washington with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, occurring in the midst of a major push for health care reform legislation, signaled no major change in a U.S. policy intent on drawing down combat forces from the six-year-old theater. Obama, speaking briefly with reporters on July 22 after an hour-long meeting with Iraq's prime minister, urged reconciliation among Iraqi factions and reiterated a commitment to fully withdraw the last of the 130,000 U.S. troops by the end of 2011 (VOA). "We're in the midst of a full transition to Iraqi responsibility," the president said.

But Iraq still remains heavily dependent on U.S. support (TIME). U.S. military officials say Baghdad lacks the ability to turn information gathered on the battlefield into "targetable intelligence," a key tool to staying one step ahead of a still lethal insurgency. At a briefing the day after his talks with Obama, Maliki opened the door to the possibility that U.S. forces could be asked to stay in Iraq after 2011. Dan Senor, a former coalition adviser in Iraq, says the Obama administration is also needed for nonmilitary mediation, particularly in resolving Kurdish-Arab tensions (WSJ) over oil and political control. (A test of Kurdish stability will come this weekend, when the region votes for members of the Kurdish regional parliament.) Obama, meanwhile, offered U.S. support for guiding Iraq out of UN sanctions that have been in place since the 1991 Gulf War.

For his part, Maliki faces a delicate balancing act (WashPost) in his relations with the United States--if he is perceived as too close to Washington, he could lose support at home, but he can't completely distance himself either. "Iraq continues to face some security and economic challenges and we fear that some present problems might become crises," his foreign minister told Asharq Alawsat before the trip, explaining why Baghdad still needs Washington. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle suggests the best way to avert crisis might be to delay the U.S military's drawdown. But for now, the Obama administration appears to have no interest in prolonging the military engagement.

Meghan L. O'Sullivan, who served as deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan in the Bush administration, urges the Obama administration to focus on issue-based politics, rather than sectarian differences. Tensions over "fundamental questions about the nature of the state" are what animates Iraqis, she argues (WashPost). Iraq expert Reidar Visser also says the U.S. approach is predicated on a misplaced belief that sectarian tensions continue to dominate Iraqi discord. They don't, Visser says, but both Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden continue to cite a sectarian storyline to Iraq's problems. "While Iraq itself may be maturing," Visser writes, "U.S. policy in Iraq is not."

 

Analysis and Background

Sam Parker of the U.S. Institute of Peace assesses the state of U.S.-Iraq relations in this video interview.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill discusses (Charlie Rose) Washington's plans for long-term relations with Baghdad.

Mideast expert Juan Cole on what Maliki wants, in particular an end to UN restrictions dating back to the Kuwait invasion era.

The Institute for the Study of War examines the Iraqi political landscape and the rise of the Iraqi parliament.

Michael Eisenstadt and Ahmed Ali of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy chart the path to Iraqi reconciliation.

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