U.S. departure will leave Iraq on its own in a sea of conflict

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 21, 2011 

BAGHDAD — The failure of the Obama administration to reach an agreement on a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq will increase pressure from all directions on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, testing the resiliency of this country's fragile national institutions and a political class that had long relied on a U.S. safety net.

Even as President Barack Obama announced Friday that all U.S. forces would be home before the Christmas holidays, a speedup of the U.S. withdrawal that had been scheduled to end Dec. 31, Turkish forces were still fighting inside Iraq, retaliating for guerrilla attacks launched from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region — just one of the international entanglements that Iraq soon will be left on its own to contend with.

And there are any number of internal disputes that the U.S. has played a critical role in mediating for years that soon will be left only to Iraqis to sort out.

To be sure, no one can rule out the possibility that Iraqis will pull together to overcome disputes that for years have appeared insoluble. It is even conceivable that Iraq could become a beacon for democracy in a Persian Gulf region now ruled by a clerical regime in Iran and near-absolute monarchies in the Arab states.

Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite politician who helped persuade the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003, on Friday welcomed the end of the U.S. presence, calling the U.S. decision to stop talking about staying "a very wise move," He portrayed the reality check Iraq is about to face as a positive development.

"Iraqi politicians can no longer expect the American safety net to contain their quarrels, and they must transcend being politicians to being statesmen, to deal with issues that they have to resolve without the American presence," he told McClatchy.

But if things go badly, Iraq could come apart in ways that are sure to involve Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. All are major players in the region, all are neighbors of Iraq, and all have ethnic, sectarian, cultural or political ties to substantial elements of the population inside Iraq's multi-ethnic state.

An unfortunate turn of events also would affect the supply of oil from Iraq, which has enormous potential as a major player in the energy market, as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the first and second biggest producers.

Iraq's security problems come in three layers. Some challenges, like the absence of a national air defense and the need for better defense intelligence, are issues of national military preparedness that are resolvable with hardware purchases and training, given enough time. Iraq already has purchased one squadron of F-16s and is expected to order a second.

On top of the military inadequacy is a set of tough political issues, principally the disputes between Kurds and Sunnis over who will control places like Kirkuk, a dispute that has proved so complex that the U.S. military has been called on to manage periodic flare-ups of violence.

Then there is the potential threat from outside in a region where memories are still bitter over Iraq's role as bullyboy under Saddam Hussein and his wars against Iran and Kuwait.

For the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the biggest threat to Iraq comes from Iran. The giant Shiite Muslim nation, which uses its clout regularly with the friendly Shiite-led government in Baghdad, sustained hundreds of thousands of casualties in its eight-year conflict with Saddam's Iraq. No one can deny that Iran has a legitimate interest in Iraq being a good neighbor.

But heavy Iranian involvement in Iraq's elections and the formation of its present government, its reputed arming of extremist Shiite militias in southern Iraq and Tehran's insistence that Baghdad's foreign policy bend to its wishes have aroused anxiety among practically everyone else in the region.

To Iraq's north, the continuing pro-democracy revolt in Syria presents an unsettling scenario. Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, wants Iraq to support Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, which is related to Shiite Islam.

But Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia wants Assad overthrown and would be happy to see majority rule by Syria's long repressed Sunni population.

If the current unrest to the north evolves into full civil war, weapons will no doubt flow to either side through Iraq, and might easily revive sectarian war here.

A problematic internal issue is what to do about Kirkuk, an oil-rich province claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen. Saddam Hussein had sought to dilute the region's Kurdish population by moving thousands of Arabs there from farther south, but since the U.S. toppled the dictator, Kurds have streamed back.

Meanwhile, al Qaida and other Sunni Arab insurgents from nearby towns regularly provoke the different police forces that provide security in Kirkuk, some of which report to the central government in Baghdad and others to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Tahseen al Shaikhli, an Iraqi government spokesman, said last summer that no one in Iraqi politics wanted to come "within 100 feet" of addressing the Kirkuk problem. "The American troops are the balance of everything there," he told McClatchy.

That will soon be a memory. The U.S. military command for northern Iraq hauled down the U.S. flag on Thursday at a ceremony in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. Now it will be up to Iraqi forces to maintain the peace and resolve the crises.

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