x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Still much work for US to do in Iraq

The United States is far from absolved of its responsibilities and risks being drawn back into the fray unless it can foster a national and regional dialogue.

WASHINGTON // On June 30, in keeping with the timetable set by the US-Iraq status of forces agreement, the United States 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 Dec 31 2011. The Iraqi government declared this move a victory and set aside June 30 as "Sovereignty Day", a national holiday. In the United States, a writer for The Washington Post stated that Iraq "is no longer an American war", (certainly, I must add, not the view of the Obama administration). Nice words, but a more dangerous exaggeration than a depiction of reality. Victory has not been won, nor has US responsibility ended.

It is good that the US has redeployed and it is equally important that the Iraqi military and government must find a way to assume primary responsibility for security. But there will be difficult days ahead, with dangers on many fronts. These must be faced squarely. Of principal concern, of course, is the absence of internal political reconciliation. Tensions remain between the government and other factions within the majority Shiite 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 what they feel is a Kurdish overreach in 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 on July 25 when Kurds hold regional elections. Passage could spark a major conflagration. Concerned with continuing violence in this region, the US requested that its military remain in Mosul beyond the June 30 deadline. This request was denied.

An additional problem, which has been ignored for too long, is the situation of the refugees and internally displaced people (more than two million of each) who represent about one-fifth of the Iraqi population. Many of these fled because of the hardships of war, while the neighbourhoods or communities of others were "cleansed" of these people for ethnic or sectarian reasons. As long as these groups remain in limbo in Syria, 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 anyone 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 determine success or failure. One of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (whose final report was the most discussed yet least read or heeded book of the decade) was the need to establish a regional contact group that would help create a regional security framework and support efforts to promote internal reconciliation.

All of Iraq's neighbours 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 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 GCC countries remain 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 Iraq's neighbours and internal factions to participate in a contact group, where they are forced to lay their cards on the table, not under it

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 it 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.