Iraq: What must now be done

On June 29th, in keeping with the timetable set by the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, the US redeployed its combat forces out of major Iraqi cities–the first phase of a plan that should lead to a complete US withdrawal from Iraq by December 31, 2011.

The Iraqi government declared this move a victory and set June 30th as “Sovereignty Day,” a national holiday. In the US, a Washington Post writer stated that Iraq “is no longer an American war,” (certainly, I must add, not the view of the Obama Administration). Nice words, but more dangerous exaggeration than a depiction of reality. Victory has not been won, nor has America’s responsibility ended.

It is good that the US has redeployed and it is equally important that the Iraqi military and government must now find a way to assume primary responsibility for internal security. But there will be difficult days ahead with dangers on many fronts. These must be faced squarely.

Of principle concern, of course, is the absence of internal political reconciliation. Tensions remain between the government and other factions within the majority Shi’a community. There is also the matter of the still unresolved integration of major Sunni groups into the government and its institutions.

Probably the most immediate danger will come from the north where Arabs are fighting against what they feel is a Kurdish overreach in the Kirkuk and Nineveh Provinces.

As one of its closing acts, the outgoing Kurdish Parliament passed (some say, unconstitutionally) a new draft constitution extending the borders of their region to include Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh. This is to be voted on July 25th when the Kurds hold regional elections. Passage could be a spark that ignites a major conflagration. Concerned with continuing violence in this region, the US requested that its military remain in Mosul beyond the June 30th deadline. This request was denied.

An additional problem, that has been ignored for too long, is the situation of the refugees and internally displaced persons (more than 2 million of each) who represent roughly 1/5 of the Iraqi population. Many of these fled because of the hardships of war, while others were “cleansed” for ethnic or sectarian reasons from their neighborhoods or communities. As long as these groups remain in “limbo” in Syria or Jordan, or other parts of Iraq, itself, a deep wound continues to fester.

It is difficult to see how any of this constitutes “victory,” or how any American writer can declare the US absolved from responsibility for the mess that remains.

I have long argued that what matters is not the date the US sets for its departure, but what is done between now and that date that will ultimately determine success or failure.

One of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (the most discussed, and yet least read or heeded book of the decade) was the need to establish a regional contact group that would help both to create a regional security framework and to support efforts to promote internal reconciliation.

There can be no doubt that all of Iraq’s neighbors have legitimate concerns in the country’s future and stability. Some like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been directly harmed in the past. Iran fought a long and costly war with Iraq, and both Turkey and Iran share with Iraq the need to address legitimate Kurdish concerns. Syria and Jordan have borne the burden of sheltering Iraq’s refugees, while the rest of the GCC countries remain deeply concerned lest the continued instability in Iraq spill over, threatening regional security.

All of these countries have concerns, and, to some degree, competing interests and visions for Iraq’s future. And some, like Iran, are continuing to play a meddlesome role seeking advantage to promote their interests.

The only way forward is to invite all of Iraq’s neighbors, as well as all of Iraq’s internal factions and groupings to participate in a contact group–creating a situation where they are forced to lay their cards on the table instead of under the table. As urgent as this approach was when the Iraq Study Group proposed it in 2006, it is more so now, given the tumultuous events in Iran and the dawning of the beginning of the end of the US military presence in Iraq. The longer the US waits to create this regional framework, the less leverage we will have and the greater the danger that Iraq’s internal dynamics or external factors may cause the situation to spin out of control. This, in turn, could create a new crisis drawing the US back into the fray, making the achievement of full sovereignty and reconciliation more difficult to achieve.