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.
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More important, the elections will probably prove very little. At most, they will illustrate that as long as Washington insists on them and provides a protective environment, they will take place; there is no guarantee that an Iraq free of US forces will resort to democratic exercises to decide who rules. And while elections should be encouraged as an important indicator of political progress, they are not what will make or break Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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As violence has abated, politics remains highly dysfunctional. Fundamental conflicts over power (how to divide it), territory (how to allocate disputed areas, especially oil-rich Kirkuk) and resources (how to manage them and share oil income) simmer without prospect of early resolution and will determine what happens to Iraq when the US leaves. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may have surprised friend and foe by profiling himself as a national statesman seeking to restore a national Iraqi, rather than an ethnic or sectarian, identity, but in so doing he is alienating one of his main governing allies, the Kurds. Thus, as sectarianism recedes, it is increasingly replaced by a struggle between Kurdish and Arab nationalism, which could turn violent.
If the Obama administration wishes to leave Iraq and not be forced to either maintain a significant military presence or, worse, return if the country disintegrates, it will need to craft an exit strategy that hinges not on parliamentary elections but on helping Iraqis fashion a series of political bargains that will provide all key actors with a stake in the new order. These deals concern a federal hydrocarbons law, a settlement over Kirkuk, and agreement over the division of powers that jointly would pave the way for consensus on amending the constitution.
To accomplish this, the US should support UN efforts to bring together a broad range of Iraqis and help them forge what would amount to a new national compact. This could be done via a big-tent exercise, such as the one being organized on Afghanistan, and would require close coordination with Iraq's neighbors, whose abiding interests in the country's future are matched by a troubling ability to throw a spanner in the wheels.
Whatever the terms of the needed deals, forgoing them is not an option. Absent the glue that US troops have provided, Iraq's political actors are likely to fight, emboldened by a sense they can prevail, if necessary with outside help. Obama should make sure that the peace he leaves behind is sustainable, lest Bush's war of choice turn into his war of necessity.