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Opinion

Iraq after US pullout – not a doomsday scenario

President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today in Washington to discuss the US-Iraq relationship after the final US combat troop pullout this December. Worried pundits foresee the return of rampant terrorism and insurgency, and an Iranian takeover. They're wrong.

By Judith S. Yaphe and Denise Natali / December 12, 2011

President Obama (l.) and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (c.) stand together after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Washington

As President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepare for the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq by the end of this year, the chattering classes in Washington and the Middle East confidently predict the collapse of the democratic experiment in the "cradle of civilization."

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They foresee the return of rampant terrorism and insurgency, and an Iranian takeover. Ethnically and religiously divided, Iraq, they say, can only be stable and at peace if ruled by a Saddam Hussein-like figure who personifies diversity – preferably a Sunni-Muslim general with Arab and Shiite-Muslim roots and a Kurdish grandmother.

But Iraq will survive. Iraqis have managed since the invasion of 2003 to form political alliances, hold relatively free and transparent elections, and negotiate deals among themselves and with neighbors and parts of the international community.

True, the country nearly fell into civil war – and many would argue it did. But it has since outmaneuvered both the political insurgencies and the US in their efforts to reinvent Iraq in their own image.

Still, Iraqis have some hard choices ahead.

First, who rules and how? This is a fundamental question, given the country's deep ethnic and sectarian divisions and its oil wealth.

In 2003, Iraq's Constitution, written primarily by the Kurds and Shiites, called for a weak federal structure – one of the weakest in the world – with most powers centered in the provincial governments.

Provinces can merge, as did the three predominantly Kurdish ones, to maximize their vision of self-rule within a nominally united state. Sunni Arabs and most Shiites opposed this form of provincial federation, which they saw as tantamount to the partition of Iraq.

Today, Iraq's Kurds see provincial authority as protection. The idea has caught on with Sunni Arabs, who have felt largely left out of the political process and now also want to protect their interests using the same architecture. Shiites in Basra, in southern Iraq, also want greater autonomy.

But Baghdad and the Kurds are not enthusiastic about this shift, which they see as challenging their rights and authority. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – a Shiite – rejects the creation of any new provincial blocs.

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