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America's waning clout in Iraq

In 2006, the US is expected to cut troops and spending, leaving it with less sway in Iraq.

By Jill Carroll, / January 5, 2006


As the weight of the Shiite Islamist victory in Iraq's election is still being calculated, US influence in the country - in reconstruction, security, and politics - is steadily receding.

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While a diminished US role in Iraqi affairs was inevitable, the speed of the retreat raises some risks to the establishing of a stable, US-friendly Iraq. The Shiite parties that dominated the vote in December have closer affinity to Iran than to the US. At the same time, the Bush administration is planning sharp cuts in reconstruction aid, a major point of leverage in Iraqi affairs.

"I think it's pretty clear our influence is waning as far as agenda setting," says Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University and a former top US adviser on the writing of Iraq's Constitution.

What then are America's best hopes for steering Iraq in a direction favorable to US interests? Some analysts say the US may reach out to its erstwhile enemies - the Sunnis.

"I wouldn't be the least surprised if the Americans cut a deal with Sunni [political figures with ties to the insurgency] to cut the Shiites down to size," says Dan Plesch, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

However, that tack could carry high risks in the form of greater short-term violence.

"Certainly the violence in Iraq has been much lower than it might have been, because there's been a fair deal of restraint among Shiite leaders," says David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "And that might end now - they may feel the need to really go after the Sunni Arabs as a diversion."

Theoretically, the US could reoccupy Iraq, but at a disastrous cost to America's international standing and popular opposition at home. Since democracy and restoration of sovereignty has been the US position, this seems unlikely.

When Iraq's government is formed, which may take up to two months, it will be inheriting a country with massive problems and less money to address them than its predecessor.

Even as the US begins to take a back seat, one of the key players will still probably be US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Since the Dec. 15 vote, he has been cajoling and negotiating with Iraqi politicians, in the hopes of coaxing them into forming a government that might limit the insurgency.

But the US has little currency with Sunni Arabs, and few levers left to pry concessions from the Shiite Arabs.

When Mr. Khalilzad tried similar tactics during the bitter negotiations to write the Constitution last summer, he helped keep the process moving, but ultimately at the cost of a document rejected not only by Iraq's Sunni Arab community, but by followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who is a junior partner of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance's (UIA) but who shares the Sunni Arab distrust of Iran.

"Khalilzad is trying to be accommodating. He's trying to look for compromises [but] he is dealing with people [such as former prime minister Iyad Allawi], in his attempt to make compromises, whose loyalty is [already] with the USA," says Wamidh Nadhmi, professor of political science at the University of Baghdad and a Sunni Arab political activist.