U.S. Policy of Withdrawal Yields Results in Iraq

November 9, 2009

After a long impasse, Iraqi politics took a significant step forward on Sunday with the Iraqi parliament’s passage of a new election law. The law, which would allow for parliamentary elections to take place next January, reportedly satisfied the concerns of Iraq’s three major ethnic constituent groups. This would be a crucial achievement, as the reported passage of the law would ultimately allow for the American withdrawal from Iraq to proceed along the timetable announced by President Obama last February, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the Bush administration and the Maliki government.

Resolution of the election issue underscores how moving forward in Iraq depends upon political decisions by Iraqi leaders, a point emphasized by President Obama in his speech at Camp Lejeune, when he stated that the “the long-term solution in Iraq must be political – not military.”  Iraqi politicians took the lead in forging this agreement, demonstrating a political maturation that is essential to creating long term stability there. American diplomats understood this point, as they offered strong encouragement to their Iraqi partners to come to an agreement on the election legislation, but did not micro-manage the process. Going forward, the U.S. will need to continue to support the political resolution of multiple thorny issues affecting Iraqi politics – particularly Arab-Kurd, and also Sunni-Shia tensions. While Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill will continue to prod Iraq’s political leaders to reconcile, such encouragement will only be effective as long as it occurs against the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal.

By passing election law, Iraqi political leaders take a strong step in the right direction. The New York Times reports: “After weeks of political stalemate, Iraq approved a law on Sunday to administer a critical national election in January, a significant milestone for its fragile democracy and a step that will allow the rapid withdrawal of American combat forces early next year.” The Times continued that the agreement was “a crucial step toward popular sovereignty and stability in Iraq,” adding that “the compromise reached Sunday, which satisfied all three groups, was hailed by Iraqi and American leaders as a triumph for Iraq’s emerging democracy and a demonstration of Parliament’s ability to resolve sticky sectarian disputes for the national benefit.”

According to the Washington Post, “the law passed by a comfortable margin, with 141 of the 195 present lawmakers voting in favor,” with the Iraqi presidency council “expected to ratify it within days,” so that the elections can still take place in January, roughly on schedule. President Obama praised the action, using it as an opportunity to renew his administration’s commitment to the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, agreed to in the last days of the Bush administration. “This agreement advances the political progress that can bring lasting peace and unity to Iraq, and allow for the orderly and responsible transition of American combat troops out of Iraq by next September,” said the President. [NY Times, 11/09/09. Washington Post, 11/09/09. President Obama, via the NY Times, 11/09/09]

Obama administration is right to emphasize Iraqi politics, where critical issues need to be addressed.
  In a demonstration of President Obama’s view “that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political,” the U.S. took a strong interest in seeing the tensions over the election law resolved.  According to the Los Angeles Times, “[t]he vote came at the end of another intensive day of negotiations, during which the U.S. ambassador [Christopher Hill] was seen striding through the hallways, flanked by diplomats, as he circulated among the factions to press them to reach an agreement.” The Times continued, saying “[t]hough the U.S. ceded the lead role in the negotiations to the United Nations, American diplomats stepped up their involvement in the talks as the stalemate dragged on. But Hill credited the Iraqis with devising the solutions that sealed the deal. ‘This is really a made-in-Iraq election law,’ Hill said.” Analyst Reidar Visser described the final outcome as “a compromise that gives something to each side,” by making lists of candidates open to public scrutiny, adding minority constituencies for Christians and others and providing extra scrutiny for the disputed city of Kirkuk.

However, the Times also noted that “[t]he long and sometimes stormy impasse nonetheless demonstrated the deep divisions that still threaten to tear Iraq apart, notably over the long-contested province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs.” Other political issues, such as tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities, agreement on a national oil law, and continued Arab-Kurdish tensions, will need to be addressed for the sake of Iraq’s political stability. Reuters reported this morning that “U.S. officials fear Kurd-Arab tensions may sow the seeds of a new war.” According to the Associated Press, “[l]awmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads a Sunni bloc of 11 members in parliament, said Sunnis are looking for transparent elections that serve ‘all Iraqis of all sects and religions,’” warning that if more Sunnis are not integrated into Iraq’s Shia dominated government, the country will continue to be “unstable.” [LA Times, 11/09/09. Reidar Visser, 11/08/09. Reuters, 11/09/09. AP, 10/27/09]

This is the future of U.S. policy towards Iraq: Iraqi political leaders taking the lead with continued U.S. political support as the American military responsibly withdraws. The passage of the election law in Iraq is an indication that Iraqi political leaders are stepping up and beginning to make difficult decisions, even pushing aside American influence to do so. The Washington Post reports that “In a sign of the waning leverage of the U.S. government, some lawmakers said they pushed back aggressively on what they saw as American meddling, and U.S. officials were often scrambling to learn what had transpired at closed sessions and private meetings in recent days.”  The Iraqi lawmakers approach towards American influence in their political process is evidence that President Obama’s approach that he laid out in an August 2007 speech as the Wilson Center is the correct one.  He stated in 2007: “There is no military solution in Iraq. Only Iraq’s leaders can settle the grievances at the heart of Iraq’s civil war. We must apply pressure on them to act, and our best leverage is reducing our troop presence.”

Praising the administration’s approach to the election law in Iraq, Marc Lynch writes that, “The U.S. should not be as actively involved in the details of Iraqi politics as in the past, because its influence and resources are declining, and Iraqi politics carry on well enough without American micro-management.” [Washington Post, 11/9/09.  Senator Barack Obama, 8/01/07. Marc Lynch, 11/8/09]

What We’re Reading

President Obama is apparently coming close to finalizing his strategy review for Afghanistan. Major combat operations are occurring in the northern end of the country as Afghan and US Special Forces go after a Taliban stronghold there. Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to grapple with the international community’s demands for governance reform.

A suicide bombing in Pakistan has targeted and killed an anti-Taliban mayor and eleven other civilians.

Officials in the Obama administration are concerned with continuing Iranian intransigence on negotiations regarding their nuclear program.

Complications grow for Muslims in the military in the wake of  Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan shooting spree at Fort Hood.

President Obama’s itinerary for his trip to Asia this week includes visits to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, making the number of countries he’s visited since he took office in January over 20.

Flooding in El Salvador has triggered mudslides, which have killed 124 people.

President Obama is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a renewed effort to remain engaged in the Middle East peace process.

The Dalai Lama will keep his scheduled visit to the Indian border town where he first fled Chinese rule, underscoring the continuing political tensions between India and China over the strip of disputed territory.

Obama administration officials are hoping for a breakthrough this weekend in their negotiations with Russia over a new START nuclear arms control treaty.

The Chinese government is facing new forms of criticism as activists are turning more and more to organizing and writing over the blogosphere.

Commentary of the Day

Gregory Rodriguez explores the dichotomy of celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Slavoj Zizek further explains the details behind nostalgia for communism. Mitchell Koss reminds us that Hungarian activists were the first to agitate for the wall to come down months before it actually did.

David Ignatius analyzes the various political develops in Iran and how they are affecting President Obama’s strategy of engagement to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Jim Hoagland praises the Obama administration’s outreach to Burma and their democratic activists as a model for engagement with other authoritarian regimes.

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