The Iraq War is over. Other than some occasional bombings and shoes thrown at President Bush in press conferences, the end game is coming to Iraq. The Pro-Iranian Shiite majority and the Kurds have won. After battling U.S. troops, the Shiia and Al Queda, the Sunni have lost. What is left is a partitioned Iraq held together by Nouri al Maliki’s weak federal government in Baghdad . If patience is one of Obama’s enduring attributes, he will need it in 2009. Things are going to get worse in Iraq before they get better.
There are three hurdles that Obama must clear to prevent a breakdown of Iraq’s fragile peace. To close out the war as promised, Barak Obama must navigate a tenuous Status of Forces agreement and pacify the Sunni while integrating them into the national army and Iraq ’s oil economy. But his first obstacle will be the outcome of the January provincial elections, which are going to increase tension and violence across the country.
The Sunni will participate in greater numbers than the two previous national elections. But if they don’t secure sufficient political power to ensure their interests are met, the political chasm in Iraq will widen and the Sunni may return to violence to force another hearing of their grievances. Tension will also flare between the Sunni because “Awakening” candidates will contest and in some cases defeat powerful members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party in Iraq now.
In southern Iraq , Nouri al Maliki’s Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq will face off. In the aftermath of the inter-Shiia war in Basra, friction between the two parties is sharpening over control of the national parliament. The radical nationalist Muqtada al Sadr’s forces will oppose both parties for signing the Status of Forces agreement which he claims surrenders Iraq’s sovereignty.
The provincial elections in Kurdistan have been postponed until an agreement is reached on the status of the oil rich city of Kirkuk; Iraq’s most volatile fault line. The Kurds insist that Kirkuk be incorporated into the Kurdistan ’s autonomous region and won’t take no for an answer. They shouldn’t. As the largest ethnic group in the world with no homeland, it’s time they be made whole. With Kirkuk integrated into Kurdistan, the oil revenue generated would not only power Erbil from autonomy to virtual independence, but shake up the region.
In addition to the Sunni and local Turkomen , Iran , Saudi Arabia , Turkey and the U.S. will all oppose Kurdistan’s drive to bring Kirkuk into its fold. Violence is already being unleashed in Kirkuk and tension is running high. The Kirkuk referendum has been referred to the United Nations for reconciliation, but the day is coming when Kurdistan cannot be denied. At the end of the day the Shiia will likely side with the Kurds on Kirkuk, or risk fracturing the alliance they need to consolidate their grip on the rest of the country.
Another flash point of contention will be incorporating the Sunni Awakening forces into the national army and police forces. Some 91,000 “Sons of Iraq” forces were on the United States payroll fighting al Queda–many of them were former Baathists. How much the Shiia majority chooses to integrate them into the army and national police force is a critical and touchy power sharing issue. If these Sunni soldiers are not integrated into the security forces, and instead are tossed into unemployment lines, it will be an open invitation for them to resume sectarian warfare, or worse—renew their alliance with remaining al Queda Iraq forces. Last month, the Iraqi government began paying the Awakening soldiers, but they must go further to fully integrate them into the national army and national police forces in the post-election period.
If things go reasonably well after the elections Obama may have enough daylight to begin his 16 month troop withdrawal. Obama’s withdrawal timetable was not realistic when he made it and is even less realistic today; which explains why he has modified his position, saying all “combat” troops will be out of Iraq in 16 months. Iraq’s national army and police will not be prepared to take full control by July 2010—as evidenced by the Status of Forces (SOF) agreement that calls for U.S. forces to be out of Iraq ’s cities by June 2009 and out of Iraq completely by 2011.
While the SOF has been approved by Iraq ’s parliament, it must still be approved in a June 2009 referendum; an awkward timetable considering all U.S. forces must be out of the cities in June 2009. Who is to say that the Iraqi mass will approve the SOF? U.S. commanders in Iraq are already suggesting that not all their soldiers will be out of Iraq’s cities by June 2009, and that training forces may need to remain in the cities. For both Shiia and Sunni forces looking to undermine al Maliki, the public statements by U.S. commanders are damaging.
For Maliki who gave an ironclad promise that U.S. troops will not be in Iraq any longer than 2011, the pressure is on. As for Obama, many have speculated that the SOF has given him more breathing room to gage how safely and how fast they can redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the situation is deteriorating with each passing day. Much of the focus has been on how the Status of Forces agreement will impact security within Iraq and Obama’s withdrawal plan. But the long-range strategic implications of the SOF are enormous. Acceptance of the Status of Forces agreement means that a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq will no longer be a reality—a complete reversal Bush’s strategic plan that was predicated on a robust U.S. military presence to project power across the Middle East for years, if not decades to come. Nor will there be a credible counterweight in the Middle East with the strategic depth and proximity to counter Iran ’s growing dominance of the Persian Gulf .
For 25 years Saddam Hussein kept the neighborhood safe for Sunni Arab monarchies and gulf sheikdoms, until he finally turned on them. With Saddam gone and the Shiia majority controlling the machinery of governance, Iran is slowly and methodically tightening its grip on Iraq. Iran has effectively annexed southern Iraq. Their proxies control Basra, the crown economic jewel of Iraq, where they are siphoning of millions of barrels of oil and revenue from the nation’s principal seaport. Iranian rials are the currency of commerce and choice in Southern Iraq. Having neutralized moderate Shiia clerics, including the Ayatollah Sistani, Iran controls the mosque and charities, and is slowly transferring the religious center of international Shiia from Najaf to Qom, Iran. Whether it takes five years or ten years, Iran will eventually dominate Iraq through its sophisticated system of indirect proxy rule that was perfected in Lebanon with the Hezbolla over a 20 year period. Bush’s strategic blunder in Iraq is a national security setback in the region for the United States. Iraq is now in the orbit of Iran’s expanding sphere of influence. At best, Obama’s can limit the damage by getting out of Iraq in good order and moving on to Afghanistan where events are growing even more complicated.
Wars, like life, have uncertain outcomes. While there is a good chance that Barak Obama can affect an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq without the country spiraling into chaos, there is also much that could go wrong. Ironically, it is Iran that is best positioned to help Obama keep the peace in Iraq . For the cautious Obama it’s highly unlikely he will act on this fundamental reality. For that reason, 2009 will be Obama’s year of living dangerously in Iraq .