The quandary in Iraq

The quandary in Iraq

August 17th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Until Monday, the continuing withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the Iraqi government's seeming ambivalence about extending the U.S. Army's stay beyond the end of the year, had been the chief focus of American news reports on Iraq lately. Monday's lethal string of 42 separate attacks across the country changed that. The attacks killed 89 Iraqis, including three suicide bombers, and wounded 315 others. They also raised concern about Iraq's assumed ability to maintain internal security, and begged the question of whether Iraq might fall again into the pit of vicious sectarian violence like the nation experienced at the height of the civil war in 2006-07.

The specter of the latter - particularly if the attacks were the work of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, as seems likely - may well persuade the Iraqi government to negotiate an extension of the American garrison. If it does, it will have to move quickly.

Whatever the outcome, there are risks to both sides if U.S. forces remain, or if they leave, as now required under the current "status of forces" agreement approved by former President George W. Bush before he left office.

If the United States agrees to keep some troops in Iraq for training of Iraqi army and security forces, U.S. soldiers will be subject to the threat of renewed attacks by anti-American Shiite militias controlled by Moktada al-Sadr. The radical cleric, long a foe of any foreign forces in Iraq and an open ally of Iran, has already vowed to attack American troops if they stay in Iraq past the current withdrawal deadline in December.

Regardless, American generals, obviously with the approval of the Obama administration, have been quietly trying to persuade the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq for training and logistical support. America's interest in maintaining forces and some influence in Iraq is clear. After eight years of war and investment in rebuilding Iraq, it's now in America's interest to maintain a presence to counter neighboring Iran's influence, and to try to keep Iraq pointed toward a democratic government and strategically valuable relations with the United States and the west.

The Maliki government has reportedly acknowledged his desire for a continued U.S. force. But he has to weigh the threats of renewed violence from al-Qaida-oriented Sunnis, who remain hostile to a Shiite-led government, as well as Sadr's Shiite radicals. He also has to consider the hand that a meddlesome Iran might play in Iraq's internal affairs.

If the government opts to keep U.S. troops, Sadr's militias might secure Iranian backing and contest both the U.S. forces and the more centrist Maliki government. On the other hand, if the government refuses to extend the stay of U.S. troops, their December departure could deprive al-Qaida in Mesopotamia of popular support and reduce sectarian violence. The terrorists' chief appeal now is their opposition to U.S. forces; once the soldiers are gone, the supposed purpose for the anti-American al-Qaida network theoretically would evaporate. Indeed, some Iraqis suspect Monday's attacks were intended to frighten the government into seeking extension of the American presence.

The Iraqi people, to be sure, now find their own government as distasteful as the U.S. presence, which declined from 134,000 troops in 2009 to 48,000 this past spring. Iraqi civilian deaths from war are down, from 900 in 2009 to 380 through early 2011, but violence persists, unemployment ranges above 30 percent, and electricity and potable water remain spotty. More frustrating is the deadlocked government, which is split by sectarian blocs and accomplishes little in the way of improving services, safety and the economy.

Americans, having spent $1.3 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are tired of paying so much to remain in Iraq and seeing so little fruit from the effort and the bloodshed. But there's no neat solution to embrace. As much as Americans might want to shut the book on the Iraq war, the quest for stability there takes precedence if Baghdad seeks a continued U.S. engagement.