Iraq Stands on the Brink of Disaster

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By ROBERT ZARATE , Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative
January 23, 2012

About Robert Zarate:
Robert Zarate, a former congressional staffer, is policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

By ending America's military presence in Iraq, President Obama has irresponsibly endangered that country's progress in internal security, sectarian reconciliation, and democratic reform—progress that U.S. troops had fought hard to facilitate.

President Bush's 2007 troop surge helped create the stable space needed for Iraq's sectarian groups to begin reconciling politically. In late 2010, political blocs forged the "Erbil Agreement," a power-sharing breakthrough that ended the long standoff following Iraq's parliamentary elections, and enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his pro-Shiite Dawa party to form a government.

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Under Obama's watch, however, Maliki failed to fully implement the Erbil Agreement, and concentrated his hold on power by promoting a partisan military that protects sectarian interests, and fostering an arbitrary and corrupt judiciary system. He also personally assumed key ministry positions on defense, interior security, and national security—or delegated these roles, without parliamentary consent, to diehard loyalists. More recently, he had hundreds of Sunni Iraqis arrested for allegedly being former Ba'ath Party members.

What's troubling is that, throughout all this, America's stabilizing military presence in Iraq had afforded the Obama administration no small amount of political leverage on key players in Baghdad—leverage that the President declined to use as Maliki brazenly consolidated power.

Obama's hands-off approach to Iraq became apparent as talks faltered for a so-called "security agreement" to permit a small force of U.S. troops to remain after 2011. McClatchy Newspapers reported that, according to U.S. government records, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden apparently remained disengaged from diplomatic talks for a new security agreement, and had virtually no direct contact with Maliki this year prior to the October 2011 Iraq withdrawal announcement.

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At the end of 2011, as the last U.S. troops prepared to depart, Iraqi political leaders issued a blunt warning. "Iraq today stands on the brink of disaster," wrote Ayad Allawi, the former Shiite prime minister who now leads the opposition Iraqiya coalition, Usama al-Najaifi, the Sunni speaker of Iraq's parliament, and Rafe al-Essawi, the Sunni Iraqi finance minister, in The New York Times. They cautioned that if the Obama administration continues to unconditionally support the Maliki government, Iraq will move "toward a sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war."

Given what's at stake for America in Iraq and the wider Middle East, Washington should work with Baghdad to forge, at a minimum, new legal arrangements to cooperate on military, intelligence, counterterrorism, and other security matters. At the same time, Obama must find ways to pressure, publicly and privately, Maliki to share power with rival political blocs, and avoid a new sectarian civil war. That task is made all the harder now that U.S. troops have left Iraq.