x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iraq's leaders need to find the national interest

Iraq's leaders, still unable to agree in the national interest, have set the stage for trouble no matter how many US troops remain there next year.

The prospect of hanging, said the British literary man Samuel Johnson, concentrates the mind wonderfully. By that standard there must be some highly-focused people in Baghdad these days, as those in high office in Iraq tear the pages off their calendars and brood about the US troop withdrawal schedule.

The 2008 Iraq-US Status of Forces Agreement says the last US forces will leave by December 31, although talks may lead to a residual force of 3,000 to 10,000 "trainers". The current force level, 45,000 uniformed Americans, is sharply down from the peak number, 170,000, during President George W Bush's "surge" four years ago.

But what happens starting in January? Once US combat forces are gone, a range of "non-state actors" will again have freedom of operation. Iraqi security forces, the object of so much US attention and money, are not the reliable instrument a government needs to suppress militias, armed factions, Iranian proxy groups, kidnap gangs, and brigands.

The blame does not lie with the soldiers. To monitor, outsmart, and outfight non-state actors, and ultimately to deprive them of public sympathy, the first essential is a unified cabinet in which a country's major sectarian, ethnic, regional, and tribal groups all have a stake. Such a government can be a forum for compromise and power-sharing and those tools point the way to reliable governance.

Iraq's leadership, alas, is nothing like that. Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and other Iraqi leaders are hopelessly divided, unable even to pass a law governing oil production or to name a defence minister.

President Jalal Al-Talabani reportedly said this week that Iraqi political leaders agree that all US troops must leave before New Year's Day. But Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis are anxious.

One reason for that is Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, who has signalled that his formidable Mahdi Army militia will resume attacks on any lingering US forces. Who then can believe that he would negotiate in peace with other Iraqis if the Americans left?

It is equally hard to believe that Iraq's leaders, so relentlessly focused on factional infighting until now, will begin to discover a broad national interest as the new year begins.

But unless they can do that, Iraq's political leaders have set the stage for a dangerous new year, with or without a US presence.