Why Iraq’s Terror Uptick Won’t Affect Decisions on U.S. Troops

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Iraqi security forces inspect the site of a suicide car bomber plowed his vehicle into a checkpoint outside a police building just outside the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. (Photo: Alaa al-Marjani / AP)

The 32 terror attacks that killed 70 people across Iraq on Monday prompted a knee-jerk question in much of the media: Would or should the uptick in violence prompt a rethink of plans to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by New Year’s Eve?

The short answer is no, and the longer answer is probably not.

U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is sometimes still discussed in Washington as if withdrawal were a choice to be made by the Obama Administration, but that’s not the reality: Ever since the Bush Administration handed Iraq’s sovereignty back to the country’s government in June 2004, the question of when or whether U.S. troops will leave Iraq has been Iraq’s to answer. The only legal basis on which 48,000 U.S.  troops currently remain in Iraq is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) concluded between the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government in December of 2008. And the SOFA states clearly and unambiguously that all U.S. forces will have left Iraq by January 1, 2012.

The only basis for any U.S. troops staying beyond that date would be a new agreement with the Iraqi government.

Not only does much of the Washington government pay little heed to the fact of Iraqi sovereignty; it’s also often based on assumptions not shared by Iraq’s government. Today, hawkish voices in  Washington hawks warn that if the U.S. withdraws its troops, Iran will be defenseless in the face of Iranian intervention, and Baghdad will become a satellite of Tehran. Senator John McCain, citing the Iranian threat and Iraq’s tenuous internal political situation, has advocated a permanent mlitary presence in Iraq along the lines of Germany or Korea.

But Iraq’s government sees things very differently, and has made bluntly clear for years that it views Iran as a friend and ally, and wants no part in Washington’s  conflict with Tehran. Telling Iraq that it needs U.S. troops to protect it from Iran is unlikely to prove very convincing. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has survived in power largely by his ability to manipulate conflicts between more powerful allies and rivals to his own advantage, may well see some good in keeping an American force in his country. Talks on an agreement to leave behind a residual U.S. force numbering around 10,000 for purposes of training and mentoring Iraqi forces reportedly began two weeks ago. But Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand anti-American Shi’ite cleric on whose support Maliki depends for his coalition’s survival has warned that any American troops who remain in Iraq on New Year’s Day will be considered fair game.

Maliki lacks the political strength to force through any new SOFA agreement on his own; he had made clear that it will require a parliamentary vote to approve a deal to extend the U.S. stay — and that fact alone, as Juan Cole points out,  renders such an agreement unlikely.

U.S. officials continued to insist, in the wake of Monday’s attacks which Iraqi security forces blamed on al-Qaeda, that Iran’s biggest security threat comes from Iran-backed militias. But while such militias may be a threat to U.S. forces and interests in Iraq, the Iraqi government and security forces don’t perceive them in quite the same way. Iraq owes its democracy to the U.S. invasion; its military will likely maintain a long-term relationship with the Pentagon and U.S. arms suppliers; and Maliki has little love for Sadr and the Hizballah-like independent military capability he could still wield. Still, the sovereign will of the Iraqi people remains at odds with wider U.S. priorities in the Middle East, ranging from Israel to Iran. And unlike Pakistan, Iraq won’t even pretend to share U.S. objectives in neighboring countries. That, and the considerable influence Tehran maintains among key Iraqi political parties renders fanciful any notion of that Iraq will consent to a long-term garrison of U.S. troops in order to contain Iran.

And even if the U.S. did leave 10,000 troops in Iraq, or even all 48,000 currently there, that would have little impact on the sort of terror wave that struck on Monday, because conventional military forces offers limited protection against furtive terror networks. Sure, the level of violence in Iraq declined in the course of the U.S. surge begun by President George W. Bush in 2007, but the primary reason for the improved security was not the number of American troops on patrol. Instead, it was the combination of the unilateral cease-fire declared by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Sadr whose Mehdi Army had been fighting U.S. forces and waging a sectarian war on Sunni elements, on the one hand, and the emergence of the Iraqi Awakening movement in which Sunni insurgents turned on al-Qaeda and went onto the U.S. payroll, that brought violence under control.

But the Maliki government never embraced the Awakening, instead treating it as a threat, declining to pick up the tab once the U.S. stopped paying it or to integrate most of the Awakening members into the official security forces. Indeed, it actively hounded many local commanders of Awakening groups. That experience — and bitterness over the fact that the political bloc backed by Sunnis won more votes than any other in last year’s election, yet was beaten out by an alliance of its rivals — has compounded a sense of Sunni disenfranchisement that may make some Sunni communities a more permissive environment for al-Qaeda and other militants.

Rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran could also exacerbate the security situation, as Tehran seeks to use its allies among Shi’ite militia to strike blows at the Americans.

One flashpoint that U.S. troops have helped police has been the contested frontier of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, which seeks to extend its control to include the key city of Kirkuk — a prospect fiercely resisted, to the point of threatening confrontation, by the city’s Arab and Turcoman population, with the backing of Baghdad. The U.S. role in monitoring that frontline formally ended on August 1, raising fears that it could once again erupt.

But having U.S. troops on the ground offer no long-term solution to security challenges posed by Iraq’s ever-volatile ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Those conflicts are contests over the distribution of power and resources, and their solutions are ultimately political. The extent to which Iraqis are able to get along will certainly be determined in no small part by the interventions of outsiders — but at this point, it may be Iraq’s neighbors that have the more decisive hand in shaping its future.

Turkey, for example, has begun to play a central role in northern Iraq, developing close ties with the Kurdish regional government and intervening with Arab and Turcoman leadership in Kirkuk to calm tensions after the deployment of Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the city in February.

Elsewhere, the regional environment is more challenging. Maliki is anxious, for example, over what an overthrow of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and its replacement by a Sunni-dominated government would do for the sectarian balance of forces in his own country. As a result, he appears to be throwing his support behind Assad.

But the 500-pound guerrilla in Iraq’s geopolitical calculations is the often sectarian regional Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which if played out as a proxy conflict in Iraq could plunge the country back into full-scale civil war. That’s a conflict over which the U.S. has limited influence, these days. But the harsh reality remains that the U.S. leaves in Iraq next year is far less dependent on 10,000 U.S. troops staying behind than on whether Iraq’s neighbors can agree on ground rules for managing their own conflicts.