America's waning clout in Iraq

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Mr. Nadhmi argues that Khalilzad needs to broaden the US base of support by talking to a wider group of politicians and Iraqi society. He calls the current approach "counterproductive. They are creating conditions that will work against them."

Another lever of US influence, of course, is reconstruction money. But it appears that, too, is likely to shrink in the coming year. The Washington Post cited unnamed US officials in Baghdad last week as saying the Bush Administration will ask for no new reconstruction money from Congress when the current $18.4 billion package runs out sometime in the middle of this year.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan refused to confirm the story on Tuesday. But he also emphasized that "the international community has important responsibilities to meet, as well," which tracks with the comments of US officials in Iraq that they're counting on major commitments from European countries and Japan.

Perceived US reconstruction failures to this point have also reduced US influence and provide incentives for leaders to bow to populist pressures and distance themselves from their recent benefactor.

"An occupying power has a responsibility based on international law ... they should rebuild this country after they destroyed it," says Nabeal M.S. Younis, a senior lecturer of international relations and public policy at the University of Baghdad. He says America's failure to deliver on rebuilding has left its image badly damaged among Iraqis.

US spending has, however, created jobs, probably one of the most effective tools against the insurgency. The carrot of a steady paycheck is powerful in a country with at least 50 percent unemployment.

"There are no opportunities in Iraq. If there was opportunity there would be no mujahideen," says Iraqi soldier Sajid, using the word for holy warrior that many insurgents prefer.

Sajid says he joined the Iraqi Army because it was the only steady job at $400 a month and even that he supplements with driving a taxi on his days off. But insurgents pay civilians up to $100 just to dig a hole, he says, where someone else is paid $100 to plant a bomb in the hole. "For a dollar bill, boom!"

Mr. Mack at the Middle East Institute says the best course for the US would not only be increased spending, but the creation of an international donor body that would allow for real influence to be exercised by other partners.

"If we could do something like western Europe after World War II, where economic support for Iraq was internationalized and we contributed heavily, that would be far more attractive to the Iraqis than anything we have offered so far,'' he says.

And while the most powerful source of US influence in Iraq remains the military, US officials have indicated in recent weeks that boots on the ground, too, will be reduced this year. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, troops are to be reduced from current levels of around 155,000 to about 130,000 before the end of the year.

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