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A Shaky Iraq's Sovereign Step

Author: Greg Bruno
July 1, 2009

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Celebratory fireworks marked the withdrawal of U.S. troops from urban areas this week in Iraq, but mingling with the high spirits was unease in many quarters over the road ahead. As a number of analysts have noted, tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq's oil-rich northern provinces remain high; power-sharing deals in Kirkuk languish; and violence in Mosul continues apace. In Baghdad, political tensions have hindered the passage of important legislation (NYT). Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution points to security concerns as well as troubling political squabbles. "We're seeing all of Iraq's various political factions vying for power in a way that serves their short-term good, but not necessarily the long-term good of the country," he told CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman. Pollack calls for flexibility on the part of the Obama administration regarding the timetable that calls for U.S. troops to leave by the end of 2011. CFR President Richard N. Haass also believes the administration should "think about conditions, not calendars," in planning for troop redeployments from Iraq. He told MSNBC's Morning Joe the true test of Iraq's ability to stand on its own will come when U.S. troops are slated to cease combat (in August 2010), and leave Iraq (in 2011). "This was the easy milestone," says Haass.

U.S. concerns remain about Iran's influence on Shiite factions and the lethality of groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, underscored by a series of deadly bombings that killed hundreds in the days before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities. Even the economic front is shaky--budgetary constraints and a mismanaged oil industry have damaged revenue streams, while a much anticipated auction for oil and gas development rights yielded just one deal (Reuters).

At the same time, some experts downplay the significance of the U.S. withdrawal that was completed on June 30. Marc Lynch of George Washington University says slowing down the U.S. withdrawal would not "materially improve" issues such as the Arab-Kurd dispute, governing capacity, or the major issue of resettling refugees and displaced persons. "The best thing the U.S. can do is to continue to demonstrate its clear, credible commitment to withdraw on the agreed-upon timeline, and do what it can to help Iraqis adjust to the new realities," he writes.

Sam Parker, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace, tells CFR.org the main question going forward is whether Iraqis will continue to have a political voice, and whether leaders like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki--whom many suggest has gone too far in consolidating power--will adhere to the rule of law. "That's why elections are so important," Parker says. "Are they as free and fair and violence free ... as the provincial elections? But more importantly, does a new government come to power, and does the real transition of power occur?"

How the U.S. military might respond should flare-ups in violence occur remains unclear. Roughly 150 American bases have been dismantled or handed over to the Iraqis across the country, but in some cases, especially in Baghdad, city limits have been redrawn to allow American bases to remain (CSMonitor). Nor will the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq decline overall. Roughly 130,000 troops are scheduled to remain until at least September, encircling cities if not saturating them.

U.S. officials were notably muted in marking the troop drawdown. President Barack Obama made passing reference to it during a press conference in Washington for socially responsible investors. Perhaps concerned with such a response, some Iraqi politicians, including Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, are cautioning against declaring the mission over (WashPost).


Additional Analysis:

- Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group says the true test for Iraq will come next year.

- Ned Parker on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's consolidation of power.

- Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood warns that the drawback "puts the 'build' portion of the counterinsurgency trinity at a great disadvantage."

- CFR's Stephen Biddle examines policy options for Washington to avoid a backsliding in Iraq.

- Anthony H. Cordesman offers observations from a June 2009 visit to Iraq. "We have not yet 'won' in Iraq and we continue to face serious risks," he writes.

- The Center for a New American Security explores policy options for a long-term, low-profile engagement between Washington and Baghdad.

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