Upcoming Iraqi elections a key turning point

Scott Sadler Contributor
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Is a new day slowly dawning for Iraq? In about a week, the Iraqi people will go to the polls once again in perhaps the most important election to date since the 2003 war began. This is yet another milestone in an ongoing series of transitions that began on Jan. 1, 2009. I was in Iraq then and in a journal wrote of that first milestone. “Today was the moment the U.S. and Iraqis have waited for—the Security Agreement is now in effect that will chart the future course of Iraq with the eventual drawdown of U.S. forces here.”

Since that time, the American people have witnessed significant achievements in Iraq. The number of U.S. Soldiers has dropped from 160,000 to 96,000 today and we’re currently tracking 50,000 by Sep. 1, 2010. The success in the drop in violence has been extraordinary due to the combined efforts of our men and women in uniform and the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni awakening movements of former insurgents who were paid by our military and the Iraqi government to lay down their arms against coalition forces, patrol neighborhoods, and to fight against other Sunni insurgents.

In December 2009, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, announced that there were no U.S. combat deaths for that month, a first for the nearly 7-year-old war. “Today, when I fly over Baghdad, I see hope, with bright lights and busy traffic,” Odierno said.

Without doubt, our future relationship with Iraq is vitally important. As with any other ally, differences will occur. The incident involving five Blackwater security guards who had been accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 20 others in 2007 is a prime example.

Well-known columnist Tom Ricks suggested last week, through the lens of a retired Marine colonel, that Iraq would wind up in a civil war or military coup by September. I talked with a former three-star general this week who commanded troops in Iraq during some of its darkest days and he threw cold water on the September prediction. It is even worth noting that on the Feb. 8, 2009, edition of “Meet the Press” Ricks said that “‘09, is going to be a surprisingly tough year” for Iraq. He went further to say that “we may see a confrontation between Obama and the generals by the end of this year.” Neither of these assertions came true.

There’s no question that Iraq is still fragile. Gen. Odierno admits that. He finally pointed to what we’ve all known but that which no one ever talks about last week in a Pentagon news conference—U.S. Soldiers in Iraq after the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline to remove all troops. “I would suggest it would be a small contingent that would help in order to continue to train and advise.” However, he quickly pointed out that such a decision would be made “by the government of Iraq.”

In one of his last columns of 2009, David Ignatius posed an important question; “Will Iraqi democracy be 2010’s big success story?” That’s the important question. On New Year’s Day, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, referred to the upcoming Iraqi elections scheduled for March 7 as “enormously important” for the future of Iraq. Gen. Odierno said, “We have an opportunity that we might never have again. We have the opportunity—potentially—to have a moderate democratic government in the Middle East.” Potential is the key word there but I believe there is still great hope for this young democracy as the hard work continues. The reward will have a vast impact on the entire Arab world.

Scott Sadler is an experienced communicator with an in-depth expertise with crisis communications who has served in senior level positions in the Federal government, Capitol Hill, and in a military theater of operation.