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The US exit from Iraq: how to steer clear of danger

The strategy must focus less on elections and more on political bargains that promote a new Iraqi national compact.

By Joost Hiltermann / March 28, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey

President Obama's announcement that he intends to withdraw most US troops from Iraq by August 2010 is most welcome, heralding the end of the Bush administration's disastrous war. Relieved as we may be about the looming exit, however, we should be concerned about the design of the exit strategy. Just as the invasion was a momentous event for Iraq and the region – liberating to many but devastating to many others – so will be a US departure. Danger lurks in a pullout done in haste that prioritizes military over political considerations, fails to consult a broad range of Iraqis and Iraq's neighbors, and is heedless of Iraq's enduring fragility.

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On this point, Obama has said all the right things. In his speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Feb. 27 he spoke of a three-part strategy involving the responsible removal of combat brigades, sustained diplomacy to secure a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq, and comprehensive US engagement across the region. Specifically, he mentioned aiding the United Nations to support national elections, brokering agreements on basic issues dividing Iraqis, and building the capacity of Iraqi institutions.

In the same tenor, US military commanders, from Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno on down, have warned that if the withdrawal is not thought through and implemented carefully, the gains of the past two years may yet be undone.

Despite such oratory, there appears to be a disconcerting focus on Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections as decisive proof of the country's successful recovery and the main precondition for a withdrawal. In my discussions with administration officials earlier this month, for example, it was clear that many saw the elections as a critical test of Iraq's ability to sustain itself beyond a US departure.

This singular focus on the parliamentary elections is ill-conceived and dangerous. First, despite reports that elections will take place in December, they have not yet been scheduled, pending necessary legislation. If the past is any guide, negotiations over an elections law may be protracted given the stakes. Under the constitution, the polls should be held by the end of January 2010. But the provincial elections, which took place this past January, suffered a four-month delay due to political wrangling. Even if things go according to schedule, forming a new government will take time. In 2005 it took four months; six in 2006. There is no reason to believe it will be any swifter now. This will leave little wiggle room if most troops must leave by August 2010.