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US troop withdrawal from Iraq

Joost Hiltermann, Conservative Middle East Council  |   5 Dec 2011

As the last US soldier leaves Iraq later this month, the occupation will end and Iraq will regain its full sovereignty. As the prolonged agonising over the question whether to continue deploying a number of US troops shows, this is what matters to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and indeed to most Iraqis. They might soon agree on bringing some US or British military trainers back into the country, but if they do so it would be on Iraqi terms, following negotiations between sovereign nations. This impending moment should not be misunderstood as something less than a watershed in Iraq’s relations with its erstwhile liberators/occupiers.

The troop departure also constitutes a psychological turning point for Baghdad’s political class. The former exile parties and politicians who entered the country in 2003 on the coattails of US military power and have enjoyed its support and protection ever since – guaranteeing their participation in the political game, even if some had little popular support – must now do without that patronage and carve out a new role if they are to survive. It will be interesting to watch how they position themselves in the new era.

The end of the occupation will turn whatever armed resistance to the US military presence remained into something else. Insurgent groups could turn on the government instead, as some already have for some time, or shed their arms and melt away or join politics. A few might seek to continue their violent campaign against the US by targeting its civilian presence: the embassy and consulates, as well as other Western sites throughout the country. The question is whether Iraqi security forces will be capable of reining in and suppressing violent groups without US military support.

Looking forward, Iraq faces four main challenges. First, due to the strategic decision – in effect since the 2005 elections – to establish a broad coalition government in order to reassure all major parties they have a seat at the table as well as a voice, policy formulation and decision making have been difficult, and as a result, Iraq’s governance record has been very poor. While major conflicts have been avoided, the Maliki government will face mounting scepticism on the part of the population if service delivery does not improve, especially as oil income rises. Seeing widespread corruption, Iraqis will hold their government responsible; we have seen signs of this already in the form of intermittent popular protests – the Iraqi echo of the Arab Spring.

Secondly, regardless of any formal unity, the polity remains profoundly divided. There might be a ruling coalition, but Maliki’s nominal allies seem more interested in ousting the prime minister than in working with him, yet they have no viable means to do so. This mirrors the situation before the 2010 parliamentary elections and thus suggests a deep pathology in the body politic. The only thing that could break through this political stalemate is the gradual but inevitable rise of a new class of leaders in opposition to the established parties, most of which are led by former exiles.

Thirdly, while the situation has remained largely peaceful since 2003, the struggle between Baghdad and Erbil – or, put in ethnic terms, between Arabs and Kurds – is far from resolved, and tensions are strong enough that local incidents could escalate into open fighting. The conflict revolves around power, territory and resources. The three dimensions came together in the recent decision by ExxonMobil to sign a contract with the Kurdistan regional government (a right Baghdad claims the KRG does not have under the constitution) to develop oil blocks, three of which are located in disputed territories.

Finally, as long as the Iraqi state remains weak, regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, will retain inordinate influence. While there is no short-term prospect of armed intervention, power rivalries and even proxy wars could keep Iraq destabilised for a long time, preventing it from regaining its strength – a vicious circle.

States such as the UK will need to approach the new situation in Iraq with extreme caution. Iraq, first of all, will be a fully sovereign nation that will expect to be treated accordingly. Foreign states should not see Iraq as an Iranian proxy – which it isn’t – but nor should they regard it as part of an anti-Iranian security framework; that would be a recipe for the relationship to fail.

To make a positive contribution to Iraq’s development, countries such as the UK should provide support for the strengthening of Iraqi institutions: an independent judiciary, a vibrant parliament, and strong oversight agencies. They should also support the UN effort in Iraq, specifically with regard to outstanding issues with Kuwait, the disputed internal boundaries question (Kirkuk et al.) and future elections.

The end of the occupation augurs the chance for the US, UK and others to place their relationship with Iraq on a new and healthier footing. They should not misinterpret, or miss, this critical moment.

Joost Hiltermann is Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa for International Crisis Group. 

Conservative Middle East Council 

 
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