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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 05:02 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 05:02 | SYDNEY

Five Middle East crises: 2. Iraq

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4 February 2009 11:14

Following on from my earlier post, the second of the Middle East’s five crises/issues confronting a new US Administration is Iraq. A year ago it would have been the top of any US Administration’s agenda. But such has been the positive — if still uncertain — improvement on the ground that in some respects it seems the least difficult of the challenges the new President faces in the Middle East. Or so it might seem. 

Levels of violence are down and according to recent reports Iraq’s provincial elections have gone off reasonably well, even if turnout (51 per cent) was a bit lower than might have been hoped.

Importantly, there seems to have been a turn against parties with an Islamist and, more significantly, sectarian agenda, towards those parties with a more nationalist or centralising goals, specifically the Da’wa party of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, though the full import of the final results will not be known for some weeks.

Of course everything is relative and after the bloodshed and chaos of recent years expectations of progress in Iraq start from a low base. And yet the image of an Iraq that is slowly dragging itself back toward some form of stability and politics has already helped make Obama’s election promise of a 16-month withdrawal of the bulk of US combat forces seem very much more a mainstream proposal.

As I argued in a post last year, in some respect America’s war in Iraq ended with the signature of the status of forces agreement last November. As I said then in many respects it makes the US withdrawal from Iraq less a political question than a technical one. This recent story in the NYT also underlines how, possibly, a consciousness that the agreement marks a turning point in America’s relation with Iraq is growing in the US

But even if the US plans to withdraw in accordance with something between Obama’s 16 month plan and the security agreement’s three year timetable, there will remain key issues that will need to be addressed and will challenge America’s ability to withdraw in an orderly fashion:

First, as much as the Iraq army has become increasingly responsible for the country’s fragile but improving security, it is still heavily reliant on the US for training, logistical and technical support and, in particular, for air support.

This means over the next twelve to eighteen months, the Administration will need to manage competing priorities: Obama’s desire to carry out his campaign promise; the expectations of Iraqis that the US abide by the terms of the security agreement; and the desire of the US military leadership not to destroy recent gains in security by a too rapid withdrawal (as this report seems to allude to).

Second, this challenge of managing a withdrawal will become even more acute if this year’s referendum rejects the security agreement, which in theory would mean a US withdrawal in 18 months rather than three years.

Third, to say that violence has declined is not to say that it has completely gone from Iraqi politics. In particular the tug of war between the central government and the Kurds over Kirkuk is only likely to intensify this year, and could yet end in open warfare requiring American or even renewed international military intervention to stabilise.

Finally, the end of America’s war in Iraq hardly means the end of American interests in Iraq and the Gulf. The manner of any US withdrawal will have a critical impact on US relations with Iraq’s neighbours, both those that are allies and those that are enemies. A withdrawal will therefore have to be integrated into a broader regional diplomacy to ensure that neighbouring states do not exploit the withdrawal to the detriment of either Iraqi stability or US regional interests.

Photo by Flickr user Haider Nakkash used under a Creative Commons licence

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