Monday, May 4, 2009

Old Troubles Stir in Baghdad. . . and around the Middle East

Excellent analysis by the Financial Times' Roula Khalaf. The Obama administration is being forced to deal with several escalating crises that may become interwoven catastrophes. The ramping-up of violence in an Iraq still torn by sectarian divisions is but one. The media have relegated it to the back burner, and with newspapers like the Boston Globe about to close (and the NY Times itself is hardly in the financial pink), coverage of all of the crises may become even more sporadic, at least by the US media. The advance of the Taliban in Pakistan has lately seemed inexorable, and as the NYT reports, the US is indeed concerned about the safeguarding of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Afghanistan is facing elections at a time when the countryside is hardly secure, with even worse fighting probably in store as the summer unfolds. Meanwhile, Michael Oren, the US-born historian who has been appointed Israel's new diplomatic representative to the US, has declared to the just-convened AIPAC convention that Israel will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power - and Haaretz reports a recent poll that indicates a large majority of Israeli Jews are in favor of bombing Iran.

The next few months - or perhaps weeks - are going to tell a very interesting story . . .

US must pause for thought as old troubles stir in Baghdad

By Roula Khalaf

Published: May 1 2009 03:00 | Last updated: May 1 2009 03:00

It was with great relief, if a little surprise, that the world greeted Iraq's improved security following the previous US administration's temporary troop surge. Some brave souls were so encouraged that they dared to start investing in what is, after all, one of the Middle East's biggest oil-rich economies.

But as Iraq sells itself to the world more vigorously - yesterday it held an investment conference in London - it is violence that has been surging. And it is reviving some of the old fears that many had assumed were buried.

With the US pushing ahead with its withdrawal plans, pulling out first from the cities by June, the question that has nagged the country since the 2003 American-led invasion is rising back to the surface: could Iraq unravel?

In Washington, some voices have raised warnings that the Obama administration's policy on Iraq is drifting, as attention focuses more on danger zones elsewhere, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, argues that the Bush administration moved away from Afghanistan to Iraq prematurely and with tragic consequences, but that the Obama administration is turning away too early from Iraq to Afghanistan, and this, too, could have disastrous consequences.

"Iraq is one of several dozen issues on the agenda, and it doesn't stand out," he laments.

The recent spate of bombings in Shia areas, which have killed at least 200 people in the past fortnight, appear designed to re-ignite a new round of sectarian bloodshed. While tragic, the violence is not unexpected.

US commanders have never claimed victory. Indeed, they have consistently made clear that the gains in Iraq are fragile. Nor should the attacks deter the US from pushing ahead with its military withdrawal plans.

Anthony Cordesman, a leading Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says: "At some point we cannot stop the insurgency from carrying out attacks. People who favour violence adapt, just like those vying for security adapt."

Iraq is still haunted by a series of intractable problems, many of which have the potential to reverse recent gains or fuel new cycles of violence.

Financial aid is drying up at a time when oil revenues have also fallen, constraining a government that is, by far, the largest employer in the country. Holding pacified areas of the country becomes all the more difficult without the ability to create jobs and deploy massive investment.

Meanwhile, the capabilities of Iraq's security forces are only now being tested, as the US draws down its own troops. If Iraqi forces fail to end the new wave of bombings, Shia militias could reappear and extract revenge from Sunni insurgents.

A crisis over Kirkuk is also looming. Will the government and Kurdish parties use the soonto-be-published United Nations recommendations on the dispute over the oil-rich city to launch a process of negotiations or entrench their positions further?

Then there is the fate of the so-called Sons of Iraq, the former Sunni insurgents who, with US support, fought al-Qaeda but are now having to deal with, and be paid by, a reluctant Iraqi government. Some of these groups - and they include many thugs - have already disintegrated and, according to some reports, rejoined the insurgency. Others have clashed with Iraqi security forces.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has made some progress. He has been willing to confront violent groups within his Shia camp and he has cleverly promoted a more national agenda that has undermined religious parties.

Moreover, the US faces a huge dilemma today. A new president in Washington who had consistently stood against the Iraq war and is eager to turn the page on the occupation wants Iraqis to assume control of their own affairs. So some US distance from Baghdad is needed. American leverage, in any case, is also reduced.

But even as it seeks to normalise its dealings with Iraq, the US has to recognise that it still has a lot at stake - including thousands of troops, at least for two years - and that it remains the most powerful outside party on the Iraqi scene, capable of mediating between factions.

It continues to have both the ability and the responsibility to exercise that leverage.

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