Iraq After US Withdrawal – End of Era or New Beginning?

August 27, 2010

As the debate continues over the effects of the United States troop withdrawal from Iraq, there are forces manoeuvring to fill the gap left by the Americans. But they are outsiders, not Iraqis.
The 4th Stryker Brigade made history last week when they withdrew to Kuwait, the last US combat soldiers to leave Iraq.
So what’s next? Iraqis don’t seem to be thinking about the repercussions too much, but regional players are already strategising about how they can gain the upper hand.
Each of Iraq’s neighbours is carefully plotting its own strategy. Every scenario would be detrimental, destabilising and damaging for both Iraq and America.
Iran is trying to frame its relationship with Iraq as one of brotherly concern. As the stalemate in forming a new Iraqi government has continued since the March parliamentary election, Tehran has managed to stall the political process while ensuring that the next government can be only be created with its blessing – and only after the US troop withdrawal.
As Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi’s bid for the premiership gained momentum, Iran quickly forged a new alliance between Iraq’s two main Shia blocs, the Iraqi National Alliance, INA, and State of Law. The goal was to prevent Allawi, who is favoured by Sunnis and enjoys close ties with US and Arab leaders, from become prime minister.
The short-lived alliance between the two rival Shia groups collapsed when Tehran failed to shift INA’s staunch opposition to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s re-election bid. But Iranian influence remains intact, with Tehran reportedly continuing to pressure Shia leaders within INA to accept Maliki, as they hold talks with all the major players.
Iran has made extraordinary efforts to ensure that it has the upper hand in Iraq, and if it brokers the deal that creates the next government, its influence will be assured.
Turkey, meanwhile, has already made it clear that it might intervene to fill the gap created by the departure of the Americans, albeit in an area where the US never had a presence, the Qandil mountains, stronghold of the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.
The wider Arab world seems to have its own plans for gaining a foothold in Iraq and changing the political landscape. Some Arab states are working quietly, through Turkey, to influence the situation in favour of the Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.
A recent piece in the London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, reported that Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were planning a conference modelled on the 1989 Taef Agreement which ended Lebanon’s civil war.
The article said the conference would seek “to resolve issues in Iraq away from Iranian and American influence”, and would take place in Damascus.
The paper quoted Iraqi sources as saying that a government could not be formed without the involvement of Arab states, and set out four different scenarios, all of which excluded Maliki and favoured Allawi to head the government.
Syria seems to be turning a blind eye to al-Qaeda activities, including allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq.
Earlier this year, a joint Iraqi-US special operations team in Mosul killed Abu Khalaf, a top al-Qaeda figure based in Syria who had coordinated suicide bombings in Anbar and Baghdad. In late 2008, a US raid on the Syrian border city of al-Bukamal killed several senior foreign fighters operating against Iraqi targets.
Damascus is also allowing the Baath party to organise and operate freely as it attempts to destabilise Iraq. Fugitive members of the Baath who have been charged with or convicted of various crimes are moving around freely in a number of Arab countries, in some cases with the protection of the host government.
It is clear that al-Qaeda will do whatever it can to capitalise on Iraq’s current vulnerability. The security forces are demoralised, there is no government in place, and the top security officials – the interior and defence ministers – have been undermined by losing their parliamentary bids in the March election.
All the above scenarios are plausible if neither the Iraqis nor the Americans make positive plans for the post-withdrawal phase.
Following the troop withdrawal, the US still needs to ensure that Iraq heads towards becoming a stable, democratic, peaceful and viable partner of the US and the free world. This has not happened yet, and has taken longer than originally anticipated.
For this to happen, the US needs to play an active political role in the country, and to do so in ways that empower the voices of independent Iraqis and groups. The Americans need to promote good governance and support efforts to steer Iraq in the right direction.
Iraqis need to realise that thus far, the doors have been left open to interference by nearly everyone in the region. Now that the American troops have gone, Iraq’s leaders need to understand that the more interference they allow, the less relevant they themselves will become. And in doing so, they will let Iraq become a battleground for regional and international players.

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