Ater months of delays, the United States and Iraq have agreed on a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Equally important, the accord sets limits on those forces’ freedom of action, giving the Baghdad government more authority over them.
The agreement is an important step forward in the restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty, but it also requires the Iraqi government to step up and take responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the country.
U.S. troops provided a much-needed security force after the spring 2003 U.S. invasion, when formal instruments of the Iraqi government dissolved. The insurgency that followed showed how ill-prepared the new Iraqi security forces were; they tended to retreat when challenged, and preferred using their weapons to settle scores with Sunnis who dominated the previous regime to fighting armed enemies who could shoot back.
Some argued that the U.S. presence made it easier for the new regime to go after its political opponents by relieving the official security forces of their job. Others said the U.S. presence magnified the violence by attracting militants to Iraq to battle the Great Satan. Yet others suggested that the U.S. presence itself undermined the legitimacy of the Baghdad government.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., casualty lists lengthened and opposition to the war and the U.S. presence in Iraq grew more fervent. Iraq became the great dividing line of American politics. Yet U.S. President George W. Bush insisted that a withdrawal could only occur when the situation on the ground justified it. He argued that setting a timetable in advance would weaken the Baghdad government and embolden the terrorists.
Nonetheless, last weekend, Washington and Baghdad agreed to withdraw all U.S. forces by Dec. 31, 2011. By next June, they will pull back from urban areas; and during 2009, U.S. bases will be handed over to Iraq.
Significantly, U.S. forces will operate under the authority of the Iraqi government and can no longer raid Iraqi homes without an order from an Iraqi judge and government permission; suspects will have to be turned over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad will also have the right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors if they commit serious crimes off-duty and off-base.
Given Mr. Bush’s determination to keep his options open, what prompted the agreement? Several factors contributed to the deal. The first was a deadline: The U.N. mandate under which U.S. troops operated expires Dec. 31, and without a deal, U.S. forces would have had no legal authority to act. That would have forced their withdrawal. The second factor, and perhaps most important, was the changing mood in the U.S. The election of Mr. Barack Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to withdraw U.S. forces, strengthened the hands of Iraqi nationalists who wanted an agreed date for the U.S. withdrawal and encouraged them to hold out for better terms in the negotiations.
The third factor was the diminishing violence in Iraq. The Iraqi government now controls all but five of the country’s 18 provinces and the monthly death toll has dropped to its lowest level since the invasion. Help is still needed, however: Last weekend there was a spate of attacks, including a suicide car bomber who killed 15 people and wounded 20 others. Senior U.S. military officials believe there is enough time before the final U.S. withdrawal to help local forces increase their capabilities and provide security and stability in Iraq.
The final factor was increasing pressure from Iraq’s neighbors, Iran in particular. The Baghdad government is dominated by Shiite politicians — Shiites are the majority in Iraq — who are both sympathetic to the views of their neighbors (also Shiite) and pragmatists who know that the U.S. will eventually withdraw and Iran’s influence will be permanent. This obliges them to walk a fine line: Even if they share some Iranian views, they are still Iraqi nationalists and beholden to the U.S. for installing them in power.
Originally, Tehran opposed the agreement, preferring an immediate and complete withdrawal of the U.S. An addition to the accord that forbids the use of Iraq’s territory for attacks on its neighbors apparently won over skeptics in Tehran.
After being approved by the Iraqi Cabinet by a vote of 27-1 (nine members were not present), the deal must now be approved by the entire Parliament. The government says it has a majority, despite opposition from some anti-American groups who want the U.S. out immediately, and Sunnis who fear that the U.S. presence is all that stands between themselves and revenge by the Shiite majority. Their position is weakened by the fact that Mr. Obama promised an even quicker withdrawal.
The most important issue now is whether the Baghdad government is prepared to truly govern the country or whether politicians will instead prefer to settle scores and line their pockets. The U.S. presence allowed them to shirk their responsibilities. A timetable for U.S. withdrawal will focus the attention of Iraq’s politicians and oblige them to lead. The clock is now ticking.
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