Foreign Affairs

Obama’s Iraq withdrawal a ‘snowball’ of disaster in the region

President Obama pulled our forces out of Iraq knowing full well that that country wasn’t stable enough to avoid possible civil war and/or the emergence of a Shiite Saddam Hussein.  History will judge this as one of Obama’s worst foreign policy decisions.
 
Obama ignored our military commanders’ call to retain a minimum of 20,000 troops after 2011 to stabilize Iraq, much as we did in the sectarian war-torn Balkans, where troops remain today more than a decade after that war ended.  Rather than stabilize Iraq, Obama took the exit road after admitting to troops at Fort Bragg , N.C.,“ Iraq is not a perfect place.  It has many challenges ahead.”
 
Obama knew Iraq wasn’t ready for the security handoff, but his hapless diplomacy failed to win the necessary immunity deal needed to protect any stay-behind troops.  So he ordered the troops out knowing that Iraq ’s collapse could be a disaster for American regional interests and put Iran in a dominant position, at the expense of 4,500 American lives lost and nearly $1 trillion.
 
Now that our troops are out, Obama’s “many challenges ahead” are coming to roost and with a vengeance.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who maintains warm relations with Tehran, wasted no time executing a sectarian “coup” to begin creating a one-party Shiite-dominated state.  Consider four “challenges.” 
 
First, al-Maliki is reducing his political opposition.  The day after the last American soldier left Iraq, al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant on three-year-old, trumped-up terrorism charges against his vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest elected Sunni in government.  Hashimi said the charges were “fabricated” to remove him from office, and he does not rule out an Iranian role.
 
Hashimi warned from his hideout in northern Iraq, “Al-Maliki will not accept the existence of opposition of any kind after the withdrawal of the Americans…[He] will seek to consecrate the running of the state by one man and a single party.”  Al-Maliki “started with me,” Hashimi said, “and it is very likely that he will move against the others.”  The prime minister has also called for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, another Sunni, to be removed, and has started investigations of other Sunnis.
 
Now the Iraqi prime minister threatens to form a government that completely excludes opposition voices.  Last week al-Maliki appointed acting ministers to replace absent Sunnis who walked out of the parliament until the prime minister responds to “all their legitimate rights” in the national partnership government.  That will never happen.
 
Al-Maliki has also enlisted known Iranian surrogates to bolster him politically.  He welcomed into the political process the Shiite militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, known for killing American troops, and he is growing more dependent on the 40-seat voting bloc of lawmakers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has close ties to Iran.

Sadr also played a key role in demagoguing mostly Sunni officials who favored a sizable American continued presence.  In fact Sadr’s influence was bolstered by Obama’s diplomatic hands-off approach when Iraq ’s government was forming last year, which pushed Maliki into Sadr’s arms.  The populist cleric’s party controls eight cabinet seats and receives significant government largess.
 
Second, Maliki maintains personal control over the most important ministries.  Sunni politicians point out Maliki is adopting Saddam-like dictatorial powers by personally controlling the two most important government positions, the defense and interior ministries. 
 
The prime minister’s control of these ministries puts him in charge of all soldiers, police and counterterrorism forces, and gives him significant say regarding the judicial system.  Little wonder there is a decisively Shia flavor among those branches of government.  For example, there are reports that military vehicles fly Shiite flags, not Iraq ’s national flag, and the Shia-dominated security forces sell command positions, according to American advisers.
 
Third, Maliki refuses to support the creation of autonomous regions, which exacerbates sectarian tensions.  Minority fear of a Shia-dominated central government has accelerated the push for regional autonomy.  Sunni leaders such as parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, who once staunchly supported a central government, now supports a semi-autonomous Sunni region.  “The solution for Iraq’s worsening problem is the formation of regions,” said al-Nujaifi in December.
 
Iraq’s constitution allows for federalism, such as the Kurdish control of the northern part of Iraq.  But Sunni-dominated provinces such as Salahuddin and Diyala now seek autonomy, which al-Maliki refuses to support.  The prime minister claims the country would be turned into “rivers of blood” if the predominantly Sunni provinces sought more autonomy.
 
Finally, sectarian violence is erupting as the standoff grows.  It started the day after American forces left Iraq .  The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni group, took credit for 15 bombs in Baghdad that killed 65.  Unfortunately, such violence is encouraged by Arabic-language satellite channels that tout sectarian sentiments of impending disaster for Iraq, and caution that the violence will spread.
 
Days prior to our withdrawal, Obama and al-Maliki pledged to work together to ensure Iraq ’s political stability.  At their Washington meeting, Obama said, “I believe that the parties … realize the dangers of a sectarian war in Iraq … because it will be like a snowball, that it will expand and it will be difficult to control it.”
 
Mr. President, your “snowball” is headed downhill out of control.  What are you going to do?
 
You should begin by admitting your decision to withdraw all forces was a mistake.  But that won’t happen.   
 
Obama should use our diplomatic, economic, commercial and cultural relationship with Baghdad to coax al-Maliki into complying with the 2010 unity agreement, otherwise Iraq is doomed to repeat its sad history.  But that’s unlikely given Obama’s failure to win a compromise while our troops were still inside Iraq.  And there is virtually no chance Obama will send troops back into Iraq .
 
Iraq appears doomed, and the snowball Obama got rolling may well avalanche out of control and across the region.  That’s why history will judge this foreign policy decision as one of Obama’s worst international debacles.

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