Despite progress, Iraq still faces extraordinary problems with continued risks to US strategic interests as the county grapples with forming a new government, the new US ambassador said in his first public remarks since arriving here.
“This is still a tough neighborhood. It’s still a country with extraordinary problems but it’s also a country that’s made a lot of progress,” Ambassador James Jeffrey told reporters Thursday evening. He said dramatically improved security had made it possible to fulfill the US goal of drawing down to 50,000 troops this month from 160,000 during the height of the insurgency.
The troops though are just the most visible sign of a broad-ranging strategic framework agreement painfully hammered out between the US and Iraq last year and intended as a roadmap to the future of the US relationship with a sovereign Iraq.
Implementing it, as well as negotiating a successor to the status of forces agreement that allows for US troops to be on Iraqi soil until the end of 2011, depends on what sort of Iraqi government comes into power.
Jeffrey, who served as deputy chief of mission in Iraq in 2004-2005, said he was amazed at the change from five years ago when almost constant rocket and mortar attacks shook Saddam Hussein’s former palace occupied by US officials.
“This is a different country but as we saw yesterday terrible things can happen,” he said referring to suicide bombs across the country on Wednesday that killed more than 50 people. “The potential for what I would characterize as terrorist acts now is quite significant and the ability of terrorist acts to have an ability on the political life of the country is still a significant risk…Violence, uncertainty, and risks to our strategy are not over.”
The strategic framework agreement commits the two countries to a broad range of cooperation covering the economy, education, and a variety of other fields as well as security.
“We hope, because this decision is also one of the Iraqi people but so far we haven’t seen any sign of it, we hope we will be able to continue the kind of deep broad political, energy, rule of law, educational, security and economic and trade relationship with this country that we have throughout the entire Middle East,” Jeffrey said.
But unlike other parts of the Middle East where stability is largely ensured by ruling families and monopolies on power, a power struggle between the country’s main factions have left Iraq in political turmoil with no guarantee that whatever government emerges will be as willing to cooperate with the United States as the last one.
“This will depend entirely on the next government and its policies with the United States,” said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who headed the Iraqi negotiations on the existing strategic framework agreement. “If it’s a friendly government with the United States it will consider that but it is not friendly – or under regional influence – it might not,” he told the Monitor in a recent interview.
The Sadr movement, loyal to hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and opposed to any US presence here, emerged with the biggest single bloc in parliament. It is expected to be a significant force either in a coalition government or in opposition.
“I know there’s a preference for a government in Washington without the Sadrists but it’s quite difficult how that should come into existence,” says Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
To break the deadlock over forming a coalition government almost six months after Iraqis went to the polls, the US has backed a proposal that would leave Nouri al-Maliki in place as prime minister but create a new security council led by his main challenger Ayad Allawi. Allawi, a secular Shiite, was interim prime minister in the transitional government organized by US occupation authorities.
Any such council, intended to oversee strategic security and economic decisions, is considered by many Iraqi officials to be unconstitutional and would have to be created by an act of parliament. No political blocs have publicly come out in support of the plan.
Jeffrey’s arrival has been welcomed by Iraqi political leaders, who criticized his predecessor, Ambassador Chris Hill, for not being actively engaged in the political process – part of the US mandate under the strategic framework agreement to help foster democracy here.
“He has a lot of respect – he has dealt with all the key players, he knows them one by one,” said Mr Zebari. “He can play a more active role … to make some progress in government formation.”
Jeffrey has already met with leaders from a number of Iraqi factions. He has not, however, met with Sadr leaders, who refuse to meet American officials and tried to block the vote on the status of forces agreement during the last parliament. The Sadrist’s Mehdi Army fought US forces in Najaf, Karbala and other cities in 2004 before Moqtada Sadr declared a ceasefire and turned the organization into what has become a potent political movement.
With the withdrawal of American forces, the US plans to expand its civilian presence here to two consulates in Basra and Irbil and diplomatic missions in Mosul and Kirkuk – two flashpoints of Kurdish-Arab tension.
To do that requires a new Iraqi government.
“We have a huge agenda to get in place the various aspects of the strategic framework agreement and those require negotiating with the government – signing agreements, moving forward and even getting basic things like agreement to build on land in sites across the country,” Jeffrey said.
The US and a new Iraqi government have been widely expected to begin negotiating a new security agreement which would provide troops here past 2011 to help protect Iraq’s land borders and air space – a development that now appears far from assured.
Visser, the editor of the political site www.historiae.org says he does not believe that any new Iraqi government would agree to negotiate a new status of forces agreement.
“I think any government trying to renew it would be in big trouble,” he says. “I think a big problem of US policy is they totally underestimate the historical legacies involved in this. Iraqis will not sign up to an arrangement with long-term bases, or long-term advisers, or long-term anything.”