Thursday, May 19, 2011

Iraq's High-Stakes Game with the US

With all the uncertainty surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue, the chaos swirling across the Arab world, and the pretty mist that's likely to be the product of Mr. Obama's speech today (which, as Tony Karon asserts, is likely to be more for domestic consumption than designed for real impact abroad), it's worth noting that, mostly under the radar, a lot is happening in Iraq.  The future there is anything but secure.

What's getting by far the most attention in the US is the Pentagon's hope that the Maliki government will reach out  and ask that the US military presence (now set to end on 31 Dec.) be extended.  Mr. Obama's professed intention all along - and one of his major 2008 campaign promises - was to end the US military involvement and have all US forces out, on schedule.  (And, by the way, as of Sunday, all British forces will have left.)  But it's also evident that lots of Iraqis are scared to death that once the US is out, all hell will break loose.  The security situation remains very tenuous, not only along the Arab-Kurd fault-lines in the north (as evidenced today by the bombings in Kirkuk that killed as many as 27), but also in the south, where Shii militias are stepping up their activity against the remaining US forces, evidently to be able to claim later that it was they who forced the US out.  (This parallels, of course, what happened when the Israelis pulled their last occupation forces out of southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah claimed that their attacks on the IDF drove out the Israelis - a claim that allowed them to burnish their status as the spearhead of militant resistance to Israel in the entire region.)

Most worrisome, however, is the situation in and around Kirkuk and in Ninewah province in the north, which was the subject of an excellent report from the International Crisis Group back in March. That report made it crystal clear that virtually no one familiar with the tensions afflicting relations (1) among the local Arab, Kurd, and Turkoman populations and (2) between the central, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government at Erbil believes that the situation there can remain at all stable once the US forces there pull out.

And complicating the situation for the KRG is the impact of the "Arab Spring."  The demand for accountability and representation now sweeping the Arab world is also being felt in Iraqi Kurdistan, where demonstrators have hit the streets (especially in the northern Iraqi city of Suleimaniya) to demand an end to corruption and to the domination of Kurdish politics by the two established parties (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party) and their militias, which are dominated by the rival Barzani and Talabani clans.  Moreover, the KRG has been the US's biggest ally in Iraq - a fact not lost on the demonstrators, in whose eyes the forces of corruption are backed by America.

What happens now remains extremely uncertain.
  • If the Maliki government decides to ask the US to stay, it may bring down on its head - and on the US forces - the wrath of Muqtada al-Sadr, who has vowed to resist any extension of the US presence, and the animosity of the Iranian government, which has till now extended significant help to Maliki but will not look kindly on a continued US presence next door. 
  • The Pentagon has expressed its hopes that the Iraqis will ask them to stay on.  If they do, then Mr. Obama will feel huge pressure to accede to their request - not only from the Pentagon, but from the McCain/Graham/Lieberman trio and the Max-Boot-ilk chest-thumpers who will demand that Obama not squander the American "victory" that the Petraeus "Surge" brought in Iraq.
  • But if Obama does cave to the Pentagon, he will incur the wrath of those millions of voters who cast ballots for him because he promised to pull the US out of Iraq.  Obama will also hamstring the US's credibility among the broader Arab public at a time when he hopes to rebuild it.
As I said, the stakes are high, even if most Americans no longer have Iraq on their radar.  If Maliki asks, Obama says yes, and Muqtada says no-way, that may change.

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