Middle East Roundtable
Edition 26 Volume 7 - July 09, 2009
The US redeployment from Iraqi cities, II
• The implications of America's withdrawal strategy from Iraq - Sawsan al-Assaf
The continued existence of US forces means the continued existence of their Iraqi collaborators.
• What does the future hold for Turkey and Iraq? - Mustafa Kibaroglu
Iraqi decision-makers would be well advised to follow the same path paved rather painfully by Turkey and Syria.
• The beginning of the end - Bruce Riedel
The challenge now is to stay on course and exit Iraq without Iran (or al-Qaeda) gaining undue advantage.
• Still reason to be worried - Khaled Salih
There is a risk that Iraqi forces will be used to settle internal political and constitutional issues.
The implications of America's withdrawal strategy from Iraq
Most strategic writers and political scientists believe the US did not have a strategy for Iraq at the time of its invasion and occupation in April 2003. That was what made a majority of such analysts describe the US position in Iraq as a "quagmire" or a "crisis". This led some strategic experts, like Anthony Cordesman and Zbigniew Brzezinski, to focus on America's failure in Iraq as being due to the lack of any obvious policy and clear strategy.
Yet it seems that the Bush administration actually followed a quite realistic strategy in Iraq. That strategy gave priority to the actual occupation of Iraq, after which events on the ground would be allowed to determine strategy.
That strategy, such as it was, was not only shaped by Bush and his administration, but by Iraq's neighbors and international non-state actors, who found in Iraq a battleground to fight the US. Inside Iraq, furthermore, there were divisions, some deliberately created, between those who collaborated with the occupying US forces and those who were opposed, as well as between sectarian communities.
All these factors made the Iraqi situation violent and unstable, leading to two conclusions: the first is that the US will not withdraw completely from Iraq in the foreseeable future. The second is that the US administration is not cooperating, and shows no sign of being willing to cooperate, with those who have rejected the occupation and the many governments of expatriates it imposed on Iraq. This is a shame. Those who opposed the occupation are more familiar with the Iraqi situation, less corrupt and have no foreign connections. Most observers believe they are more capable of solving the Iraqi problem.
Although President Barack Obama's speeches on Iraq seem very rational, it is obvious that US national interests and national security will remain more important to Washington than the interests of the Iraqi people. Obama's strategy in Iraq now is to somehow achieve a political victory. How can he peacefully keep US military bases in Iraq? How can he convince people in the Middle East that Iraq has become a democracy? How can he present the Iraqi situation as an historic opportunity in the Middle East?
It is obvious that Obama is trying to ensure that Iraq becomes a lasting US ally in the region. This strategy is based around the perception that Iraq is the heart of the Middle East and it is therefore vital that the US maintain control of it politically, economically and strategically. Thus the new US strategy in Iraq will depend on the practical implementation of the US-Iraq security treaty, which is in reality a US-US treaty.
Despite the fact that that treaty binds US forces to a staged withdrawal from Iraq, beginning with urban centers, it also gives the US legal cover to retain its military bases. The US is seeking to gain regional credibility through its withdrawals, but we have to understand that the policy of withdrawals is contingent not upon Iraqi interests but US national interests and preserving the lives of its soldiers. Lest it be forgotten, the Iraqi resistance, which started as early as April 10, 2003, is still effective against US forces.
President Obama needs a new strategy toward the Middle East, and it should start in Iraq. Withdrawing from urban centers while retaining US military bases in Iraq may go some way to convince others that the US has achieved its aims in the country, but inside Iraq the problems will continue. The continued existence of US forces means the continued existence their Iraqi collaborators. The latter will always need US support against the resistance as well as against those foreign elements who came with the occupying forces. Accordingly, it is clear that the Iraqi arena will see renewed security chaos as a result of the struggle between the weak central government and its antagonists.
Immediately after occupying Iraq, the US began to speak about the possible use of a "pre-emptive strike" strategy against Iran and Syria. While US-Syrian relations have seen some improvement. Iran remains a real threat to a stable Iraq.
Iranian leaders had mixed feelings about what happened in Iraq. They welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein, but were wary about what would follow. Consequently, Tehran has tried to make it clear to the US that to do the same with Iran as Iraq, or even to launch a "pre-emptive strike", would not be a wise option. Washington has slowly but surely begun to understand this, primarily after Iran proved the depth of the influence it now wields in Iraq. It was, and still is, obvious that Iran is one of the main reasons that Iraq remains unstable; that situation is to Tehran's advantage. The recent instability in Iran could be a positive thing since it will keep the Iranian regime embroiled in its own internal situation. Yet it could also be negative if Tehran feels cornered and needs to find an external enemy to relieve some of the domestic pressure.
It may be time for Iraq to reclaim its sovereignty. For the Iraqi government to ensure the withdrawal of US troops, if it really wants them to withdraw, and for the US to ensure a safe withdrawal, the two sides, each for its own objectives, need to cooperate in taking advantage of the Iranian situation. But with the heavy presence of Iraqi politicians loyal to Iran in Baghdad, will the Iraqi government be willing to play such a role? If so, will it be able? In all cases, the Iraqi people remain the losers in these strategic games.- Published 9/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Sawsan al-Assaf is a lecturer and researcher at the Center for International Studies, University of Baghdad, and the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland.
What does the future hold for Turkey and Iraq?
In his speech in Cairo on June 4, US President Barack Hussein Obama stated that "unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences" in the United States and in the rest of the world. This can be read as a clear signal of his intention to withdraw from Iraq, even if gradually.
Hence, as the first step to realize this goal, on June 30 US combat forces withdrew from Iraqi urban centers and handed over the task of patrolling the streets to the Iraqi security units who have been trained by the Americans over the last several years.
Yet there is no consensus among political observers, inside or outside Iraq, as to whether this should be acknowledged as a major step toward recovering the full sovereignty of Iraq by Iraqis at all levels, or if it is just a delusion that literally brings no significant change to the state of affairs in Iraq, i.e., domination by an outside power.
The prevailing view among security analysts, especially in this part of the world, is that it is more likely that for US administrations to come, Obama's and successors, the US will keep a certain number of US troops on the ground in Iraq in order to fulfill the original raison d'etre of the invasion, which was to control the country's oil and gas reserves as well as to intimidate countries like Iran and Syria from within the region. Accordingly, it would be misleading to think that just because US combat units have redeployed from Iraqi city centers, politics in the region or in Iraq will change significantly.
As a result, there is not going to be any dramatic change in Turkey's stance vis-a-vis the security situation in Iraq. The US, being a longstanding ally, will be expected to observe Turkey's interests in the process of its reconstruction of Iraq and in parallel to the improvement of relations achieved between the two countries since Obama's visit to Ankara in early April this year.
But if Obama is both willing and capable of making a dramatic shift in what so far seems to be state policy of the United States and not just the ambition of the neo-cons, and realize total withdrawal, there will be no reason for Turkey to panic either.
Two years ago, Turkish and Iraqi (read Kurdish) civil and military (or paramilitary) officials engaged in a "war of words", each accusing the other of pursuing hostile policies. But for some time now the political climate in Turkey's southeast, on both sides of the border with Iraq, seems to have changed considerably.
Notwithstanding the deep disagreements over how to handle the PKK terrorists who use northern Iraq as a safe haven or the status of Kirkuk, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials have apparently reached a "ceasefire" in their war of words. For example, a Turkish company took its share in the oil pipeline project to deliver northern Iraqi oil to world markets, a small but significant step in the right direction. Turkey is also considering opening consulates in Mosul and Irbil in northern Iraq. Again, this is an important step, especially when one remembers Turkey's attempts a few years ago to discourage its allies from opening consulates in these cities.
These examples and others are indications of Turkish policymakers' proper reading of the pace of developments in Iraq and their preparations for the post-invasion period when Iraq and Turkey will eventually be left to their own devices.
Looked at from this perspective, one might expect relations between Turkey and Iraq to normalize. However, it would be wiser to keep a certain margin of caution so as not to over-react should either side despair in the face of unfulfilled expectations.
One particular reason to underline such a contingency revealed itself in early July when Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Latif Rashid, a Kurdish member of the Cabinet, complained about Turkey's Ilisu Dam project to European capitals and asked them to prevent Turkey from going ahead with the project at a time when Turkey's Minister of the Environment Veysel Eroglu vowed to release significantly more water to Iraq (thanks to more precipitation this year). There is no doubt that Rashid's statements will sour bilateral relations and thus underline how fragile relations in general could be between Turkey and Iraq.
Syria used to play the card of supporting ASALA and PKK terrorism with the expectation of pressuring Turkey with regard to its claims on the waters of the Euphrates River until the Adana Accord, which was signed after the two countries came to the brink of a direct confrontation in October 1998.
Turkish-Syrian relations have now reached unprecedented close levels with more than 15 high-level visits, including an exchange of visits by presidents Bashar al-Assad and Abdullah Gul. Both nations currently look for ways to cooperate and to resolve their differences over the use of resources through joint projects. Iraqi decision-makers would be well advised to follow the same path paved rather painfully by Turkey and Syria over a long period of time.- Published 9/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.
The beginning of the end
When Saddam Hussein's army defeated Iran in 1988, the Iraqi dictator filled a huge square in downtown Baghdad with the captured debris--vehicles, artillery and other equipment--that his forces had won on the battlefields of the war. To those who saw the display, it was a stunning symbol of Iraq's new power. When President George H.W. Bush liberated Kuwait from that same Iraqi army in 1991, he held a victory parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to commemorate the war. America, it appeared, would be the dominant power in the Gulf for the foreseeable future. The Iraqi government has now celebrated the withdrawal of American troops from its cities. It is unlikely there will be any such displays of triumph in America when the latest Gulf war finally comes to an end.
For two decades, from the end of the Iran-Iraq war until last year, Iraq played a disproportional role in American thinking about the Middle East. At first this was a consequence of Saddam's victory over Iran (a victory we had helped engineer) and his lust for further conquest in Kuwait. By the late 1990s, however, Saddam was little more than a nuisance in the region. Yet American politicians turned him into an evil regional mastermind, some even blaming him for the tragedy of 9/11 in a blatant lie to further their own plans to get even with him for his arrogance in thumbing his nose at Washington.
The withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq's cities is the beginning of the end of this war, or at least the American part of it. So too, hopefully, it will mark the end of an era of over-sizing Iraq in American policy. Most Americans long ago came to understand that the war was the wrong battle in the wrong place with the wrong foe. They understand the cost in lives and resources was disproportionate to the gains. So, too, was the damage to American prestige and credibility, from the WMD fiasco to Abu Ghraib. What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is just how little the war contributed, despite that enormous cost, to America's four key goals in the Middle East.
Beginning with energy security, during the war in Iraq the price of oil skyrocketed and then fell back to earth. Iraq had virtually nothing to do with either trend. The war did not produce energy security for Americans. Saudi Arabia, not Iraq, remains the key to oil production levels. Whatever happens in Iraq after the final American withdrawal will probably only have marginal impact on the global energy system.
Nor did the defeat of Saddam bring any closer a peace between Israel and the Arabs, as some of the war's boosters had promised it would. Indeed, the new American-installed Shi'ite government in Iraq did not even attend the American peace conference in Annapolis in 2007, a stunning statement of its lack of gratitude toward President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Whatever happens in Iraq after the last American soldier leaves is also likely to have little or no impact on the search for Arab-Israel peace.
Al-Qaeda was a big winner in Iraq from 2003 to 2006; then its local franchise overplayed its hand and was badly weakened. But much more importantly, the core al-Qaeda leadership was able to survive and then prosper in Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the diversion of American focus and resources to Iraq. The Iraq war probably saved Osama bin Laden from death or capture in 2003 had we kept on his trail.
Now al-Qaeda proclaims that it helped convince "the US enemy to decide to escape and abandon Iraq", as its chief Afghan leader recently said on al-Jazeerah. He is probably correct: al-Qaeda's bloody pursuit of civil war did sour American views of the war. After America leaves Iraq the local Iraqi al-Qaeda branch may revive somewhat but it will always be a secondary threat to that posed by the core leadership, especially now that they have built such a strong base in South Asia. And it can never hope to dominate a country composed of Shi'ites who hate Sunni jihadists.
Finally, the Iraq war removed Iran's deadliest enemy, Saddam, and contributed to the perception in the region that Iran and the Shi'ites are on the rise. That perception, while always somewhat exaggerated, has become a powerful idea in the area. The effort of every American president since Jimmy Carter to contain the Iranians was undermined by George W. Bush's folly.
It will take great care by President Barack Obama not to allow that problem to get worse. Iran has the advantages of culture, geography and history in playing a role in Iraq's future. The recent upheaval in Iran may help by diverting Iranian energy inward, but we cannot count on that. Vice President Joe Biden has been given the responsibility of working with the Iraqi authorities as we depart to try to prevent a power struggle in Baghdad that could further open the door to Iranian influence. It will be a tough task. Their quarrels are deeply rooted and not prone to easy fixes.
Obama rightly saw the Iraq war was a mistake from the beginning. He saw Iraq was neither the key to our interests in the Middle East nor the core of our problems. His challenge now is to stay on course and exit Iraq without Iran (or al-Qaeda) gaining undue advantage. Iraqi nationalism should help, as Arabs and Kurds do not want Persians to dominate their future any more than they wanted Americans to do so.- Published 9/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He has advised four presidents on issues in the Middle East and South Asia and is author of The Search for Al Qaeda.
Still reason to be worried
People in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have mixed feelings when events remind them of the ongoing process of American troop withdrawal. For a variety of reasons, a great majority are still worried about the eventual outcome.
American troops had no visible presence in Kurdistan before the official pullout on June 30. The areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymania have been under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces since 1992. With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in spring 2003, government institutions and military arrangements in Kurdistan did not experience negative change, except during a short period under Paul Bremer in which Kurdistan's border with the rest of Iraq witnessed a relaxation, as a consequence of which a twin suicide bombing killed 98 people in Erbil in February 2004. After that, security in the region was tightened dramatically.
During the difficult years of fighting between Shi'ite and Sunni groups, Kurdish military units, which had contributed to the liberation of cities like Mosul, Kirkuk and Khanaqin, were invited elsewhere in Iraq, including to Baghdad, to participate in law enforcement operations or to protect civilians.
Thus when American troops pulled out of Iraq's urban areas, the people of Kurdistan were worried mostly about events in cities in disputed territory. According to Article 140 of Iraq's constitution, the fate of those areas that were subject to Arabization and ethnic cleansing in the past 34 years should have been settled by December 2007.
Almost a year ago, August 2008, a military standoff between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Khanaqin sounded an alarm in Kurdistan that a difficult time between the Iraqi military and the Peshmerga might be fast approaching once the American presence in Diyala province was reduced. Shortly before and since the American troop pullout from urban areas, explosions, suicide-bombings and targeted assassinations have been registered in Kirkuk, one of the most problematic cities in the disputed territories.
The replacement of American with Iraqi troops is ostensibly an opportunity to celebrate transition, as American soldiers go home and Iraqis take control. General David Petraeus, commander of all US forces in the Middle East, said on June 29, "We feel confident in the Iraqi forces continuing the process of taking over the security tasks in their own country."
Yes this might be just what will trouble Iraq. The country's history is full of incidents in which using the military for internal political purposes led to bloody and prolonged war, especially against the Kurds. With several constitutional issues still remaining to be resolved--the fate of disputed territories, the status of the Peshmerga in relation to Iraq's overall security structure, the power-sharing mechanism on the federal level, disputes over revenue-sharing and management of oil and gas resources, just to mention a few--people in Kurdistan might not see any compelling reason to celebrate the American troop pullout.
"Americans have already paid a very high price to support a transitional political process in Iraq. But why do they leave the process unfinished?" a Kurdish friend asked in a private conversation. Kurds are anxious that if the political process is interrupted and the constitution undermined, the Iraqi government will be tempted to use the Iraqi army once again for political purposes.
If the government concludes that it cannot, or is not willing to, deliver on implementation of Article 140 of Iraq's constitution and the fate of the disputed territories remains unresolved, there is a risk that Iraqi forces will be used to settle internal political and constitutional issues. Once this process starts, it is not difficult to envisage a repeat of the history of abuse of military power in Iraq.
This time, as in the past, that abuse will be triggered by an immediate cause. But the fundamental issue has been and will remain the nature of the Iraqi state and its institutions. In previous phases of state-building in Iraq the idea of Arab nationalism was the most contentious. At this historic moment, the fundamental issue is the nature of federalism, as enshrined in Iraq's 2005 constitution. From Kurdistan's perspective, any attempt to delay implementing specific articles of the constitution is seen as an attempt to back out of the principal agreements of that document.- Published 9/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Khaled Salih is senior advisor to the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. These are his personal views and not those of the KRG.