Little to Celebrate in Iraq

There's little to celebrate about the US pullback in Iraq.

More than six years after the US invasion, Iraq is shattered. Hundreds
of thousands of Iraqis are dead -- far more, incidentally, than even
the largest estimates of the number of Iraqis who died during 35 years
of Saddam Hussein's rule -- its social fabric is utterly destroyed, its
economy is in ruins, and its dominant political faction is in hock to
neighboring Iran.

And now what?

As we pull back, we're leaving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in
charge. Increasingly, Maliki is taking on the trappings of a dictator.
He's established a network of security agencies that report directly to
him. He's built a countrywide patronage system to bribe and pay off
tribal allies, in anticipation of 2010 elections. He's shown no
compunction against using the army, the police, and the secret agencies
he controls to eliminate rivals. He's used divide-and-conquer tactics
to outflank the Sunni-led sahwa
movement, known as the Awakening or the Sons of Iraq, driving some of
them back into armed resistance and others into sullen resentment or
fear for their lives.

And Maliki, despite his protestations that he is a born-again
"nationalist," has close ties to Iran. With Iran now revealed as a
fundamentalist-run, naked military dictatorship, I expect Iran to act
ruthlessly vis-a-vis Iraq, and if he wants to stay in power Maliki will
pretty much have to go along.

A prominent Sunni activist from northern Iraq told me yesterday that
anyone who thinks about opposing Maliki in Iraq has to fear for his or
her life. The fact remains that despite the resurgence of secular nationalism in Iraq,
as evidenced by the results of provincial elections last February,
Maliki sits atop a conspiratorial little party called Al Dawa, a
fundamentalist Islamist grouping, and he is reliant on a small,
secretive clique that surrounds him. During the February election, in
order to appeal to Iraqi voters, Maliki posed as a nationalist of
sorts, but in fact he is dependent on two outside powers. First, he's
dependent on the United States, for despite his bravado about the US
withdrawal from Iraq's cities, Maliki desperately needs American
backing to remain in power, to build up his armed forces. And second,
Maliki is dependent on the good will of Iran, who could topple him
instantly if he crossed Tehran.

And Obama?

It's clear that Obama doesn't want to think about Iraq. It seems
like he's hoping it just goes away, so he can worry about Iran,
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine. But Iraq's not going away.

During the campaign, Obama promised to convene an international,
United Nations-led conference on Iraq. That's exactly what he ought to
do: allow the US to step back, and let the world community step in to
help Iraq reconcile its warring factions. The goal of the meeting ought
to be to rewrite Iraq's absurd Constitution, which empowers the ruling
ethnic and sectarian parties (i.e., the Shiite religious bloc,
including Dawa, and the Kurds) who wrote it. Short of that, Iraq is
likely to explode at some point, either this year, in advance of the
2010 elections, or soon thereafter. As the US presence in Iraq shrinks,
Maliki will have less and less incentive to cooperate with any UN
effort. As it is, he'd fight it tooth and nail, and it may already be
too late.

Fixing Iraq means two things. First, it means that the world
community has to step in to empower the secular (anti-religious party)
nationalist forces that have been shut out of power by Maliki,
including both Sunni elites and secular Shiites, such as former Prime
Minister Iyad Allawi and countless others. Only they can restore a
semblance of true central government in a shattered country, make a
deal with the expansionist Kurds over autonomy and Kirkuk, the oil-rich
city in the north, and start to rebuild Iraq as a nation-state. And
second, it means that Obama has to come to an understanding with Iran
over Iraq, one that involves the full participation of Iraq's
neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, so that neither
the United States nor Iran seek to use Iraq as a battlefield for their
competing ambitions in the region.

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