The Associated Press reported late yesterday (citing the ever-popular White Houses "sources" – that is, officials probably authorized to speak and plant a message in the press but granted anonymity anyways) that the Obama administration is "offering" to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq in 2012, beyond the agreed deadline with the Iraqis to withdraw all troops.
While that word "offer" has been repeatedly used by US officials named and unnamed in recent months, a better word might be "pleading." US officials insist that Iran has been expanding contacts and assistance to some Shiite militias inside the country. Less often stated is the fact that Iraq never had the kind of national reconciliation needed for lasting domestic peace, and that Sunni militias appear to be on the move again.
A number of senior officers in the Iraqi Army appear eager for the extended presence of the US and the additional training and equipment that would mean. In addition, the ethnic Kurds, who hold a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq (carved out thanks to a US imposed no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein's forces following the first Gulf War), are lobbying for the US to stay.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been largely mum on the matter. A key to his shaky coalition are loyalists of Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army repeatedly targeted US forces while also participating in the country's sectarian civil war between 2005 and 2009. Sadr has warned of extended bloodshed if what he terms a US occupation is extended beyond the end of this year. Some small Sunni groups are also staunchly opposed to an extension.
Yesterday was a bloody reminder that while Iraq may be safer today than two years ago, sectarian violence continues to flare. At least two deadly blasts at Taji, a key oil pipeline hub just north of Baghdad, killed 37 people at a government building. The second blast was timed to kill and maim more people as they rushed to the assistance of those caught in the first, a tactic common in Iraq as elsewhere. Iraqi officials blamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni insurgent group.
Hard-core Sunni insurgent groups view the Shiite-led government of Iraq as illegitimate. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community was privileged. The aftermath of his removal saw years of Sunni-Shiite score settling. Thousands of ex-officials,-soldiers, and-politicians were abducted and killed by shadowy death squads, many severely tortured before death. Tens of thousands more were killed in market blasts and roadside bombings. Those wounds have not yet healed in both communities.
On Monday, at least 10 people were killed in Baghdad and surrounding towns like Abu Ghraib. Security incidents ran the gamut from homemade bombs attached to the underside of civilian cars (rigged to blow when they're moved), to two suicide bombers, to the targeted assassination of a leader of the Awakening Movement and his wife. The so-called Awakening Movement is a group of Sunni insurgents who switched to the side of the US military and Iraqi government in exchange for promises of jobs and money a few years ago, and have been the target of reprisals ever since.
For evidence of the still-simmering sectarian problem in Iraq, look no further than the process that formed the Iraqi government. It took Prime Minister Maliki nine months of politicking, backroom dealing, and public grandstanding to form a government after Iraq's last election. He may have deftly played the political game to win the premiership, beating back a challenge by Ayad Allawi, whose largely Sunni party won the most seats in Iraq's March 2010 election, but it came at a price: appointing the ministers for Defense and Interior were indefinitely delayed.
Those crucial security positions remain unfilled 15 months later, with the Shiite Islamist Maliki in de facto control of both portfolios. He and Mr. Allawi, a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party who defected and became close to the United States, barely speak. Sunni politicians allege that Shiite parties continue to run death squads loyal to them under the cover of the Interior Ministry. In the past two years, Human Rights Watch says it has discovered secret prisons where torture is used under the authority of the Interior Ministry.
The simple fact that the two most important security jobs in the country remain unfilled 15 months after elections, essentially because Sunnis and Shiites don't trust either side to even-handedly protect Iraqi citizens, is a measure of the risks in Iraq, and how difficult it would be to get approval for an extended US stay in the country.
If that approval isn't extended, the US civilian presence will be largely reliant on the Iraqi Army and police for protection. The US opened a sprawling $590 million embassy complex in Baghdad 18 months ago. It's designed to be the largest US mission in the world, with 21 buildings supposed to provide space to 1,200 employees – diplomats and aid workers both. That operation will probably have fewer than 200 Marines to protect it if a new deal on additional forces isn't reached with the Iraqis.
In a reminder of the risks that remain, a rocket exploded near the embassy on Sunday, killing four Iraqi construction workers.
US Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey has blamed Iran for much of the recent violence in the country. “We’re not talking about a smoking pistol. There is no doubt this is Iranian," Ambassador Jeffrey told the Washington Post yesterday.
He's told reporters that many of the explosives and missiles used in recent attacks are Iranian-made, and has singled out three Sunni groups – most prominently the Kataib Hezbollah – as responsible for the surge in violence. There's no doubt that Iran has been building ties with Iraq insurgent groups from the moment Saddam was deposed by US forces (and was involved in aiding militias close to Prime Minister Maliki for years prior to the dictator's ouster).
Iran's motives for tying down the US in Iraq are clear and it has traditionally made alliances with militant groups to extend its influence in other parts of the region (think of Hezbollah in Lebanon). But the scope of attacks in Iraq in recent weeks – on US forces, on politicians, on Shiites and Sunnis alike – indicates that whatever Iranian role exists in recent events, the story doesn't end there.