Obama can't leave Iraq in the lurch

Despite his pullout schedule, he must still help Iraqis reconcile on two key issues.

To hasten reconciliation between Iraqis as well as between Americans, President Obama plans to speed up a US pullout from Iraq before the 2011 exit date agreed to by President Bush. If this helps heal the scars of a divisive war, Mr. Obama will have added victory to victory – a soothing of old frictions while sowing unity in both nations.

His speech on Friday, announcing a faster timetable for withdrawal of combat troops, also reflects his own evolution as a leader.

Gone is the rhetoric of the Illinois state legislator who referred to an American invasion of Iraq as a "dumb war" and who then later used that stance to beat a pro-war Hillary Clinton in the Democratic caucuses. Instead, a pragmatic commander in chief spoke of promoting "an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists."

Obama also doesn't see Iraq as a failed state but a "great nation" that can be a peaceful, stable US partner. He praised the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the creation of a sovereign government, and the US role in giving Iraqis an opportunity to "live a better life."

A war that so divided Americans has now mainly become a peacekeeping operation for US troops, largely due to a change of tactics, including the 2007 "surge." In January, more US soldiers died from mishaps than from enemy fire. And nearly 2 out of 3 Americans see events going well for the US in Iraq, according to one poll. That's up from 1 in 5 in 2007.

But all is not yet rosy enough that Obama can remain rigid about a final pullout. While he seems firm about ending "combat operations" and a withdrawal of most of the 140,000 troops by September 2010, that firmness may be calculated to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to finally settle two critical issues: control over the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk and passage of a law over control of oil reserves and wealth.

Despite a string of successful elections since 2003 – a key national vote comes in December – and a turnaround by most Sunnis to join the government, Iraq could explode over Kirkuk and oil.

Compromises are possible, such as a trade of oil rights for political control of Kirkuk, but either Obama or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must make it happen soon.

Mr. Maliki, who welcomes Obama's pullout schedule, has not used his growing political strength to reconcile with the ethnic Kurds. In fact, Iraqi forces – largely Shiite – are dangerously muscling into Kurdish territory. If he can't be the leader of all Iraqis, then he must accept the American president's offer to redouble US diplomatic efforts and "serve as an honest broker in pursuit of fair and durable agreements on issues that have divided Iraq's leaders."

It's likely that the remaining 35,000 to 50,000 US troops after 2010 will be needed in Kirkuk (and also in the city of Mosul, where Al Qaeda remains active) unless an agreement is reached.

Obama cannot risk losing Iraq to chaos or dictatorship after the deaths of more than 4,200 American soldiers and nearly $700 billion spent by the US. The region needs a democratic Iraq, especially with Iran's growing influence.

Too many mistakes have been made by the US in Iraq. It can't afford one more.

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