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Opinion

US interests in Iraq: Like a good neighbor, Turkey is there

Whether US troops stay in Iraq beyond the end of year or not, the US must foster the relationship between Iraq and Turkey. Ankara is the perfect counter to competing Saudi and Iranian influence.

By Sean Kane / July 13, 2011



Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqis often remind Americans that the US presence in their country is only temporary, while the country’s neighbors are permanent. This long view is important to remember in the midst of the drama surrounding Defense Secretary Panetta’s recent visit to Baghdad. Mr. Panetta visited last week to express “tremendous concern” regarding increased Iranian arms in Iraq and push forward discussions with the Iraqi government on whether American troops will be asked to stay on after the end of this year.

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A small US troop presence would probably provide a psychological confidence boost to Iraq’s messy democracy, but even if requested, will be limited in scope and duration. America also clearly faces sharp constraints in fully resourcing its military and civilian missions in Iraq.

In this era of limited means, reinforcements need to be found to complement investments of American blood and treasure. This requires a revamped regional strategy that starts by asking which of Iraq’s neighbors share US interests in a strong and stable Iraq that can contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East. At present, Turkey stands out as the only neighbor that has the incentive to actively work toward this outcome.

This approach would be different from past appeals to Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to recognize their interest in averting the all out collapse of Iraq. Not wanting to deal with the fall-out from a failed Iraqi state is different from wanting to see Iraq succeed. In the long-term, Iraq obviously needs positive relations with all its neighbors.

The problem is, at this point, Syria is in the throes of a domestic crisis. And it is hard to see how the regional heavyweights to Iraq’s east and west, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have an interest in Iraq reemerging as a confident regional actor. Baghdad's plan to achieve this goal hinges on expanding oil and gas production.

Competing Saudi and Iranian interests in Iraq

From the Iranian perspective, a strong Iraq has since ancient times been a check on its influence in the Gulf and the wider region. More recently, Iraq was a direct conventional military threat that invaded and sought to stifle the newborn Islamic Republic in 1980. As a result, Tehran pursues the goal of a passive, divided Iraq with an explicitly sectarian political system guaranteed to generate friendly Shiite-dominated governments.

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