As voting begins in Iraq, the Iranian government is wringing their hands with fear and nervousness that this young democracy will alter the landscape of the Middle East into something they do not welcome. “They continue to play a role in supporting surrogates inside of Iraq that continue to conduct attacks both against U.S. and Iraqi security forces,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said at a Pentagon press conference last week.
In an interview with the BBC, Col. David Funk, the officer in charge of U.S. soldiers in the Diyala province of Iraq, agreed. “It suits Iran if Iraq is a sort of puppet neighbor as opposed to the very strong nation that it has the potential of becoming. It suits their needs because it keeps a weak neighbor on their western flank,” he said.
The BBC also reported that “rockets and other ordnance are still coming through … some of it is being supplied by the al-Quds force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” Gen. Odierno concurs: “They like to shoot some indirect fire at some of our joint bases. We’re seeing an increase in that.” Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza has also blamed Iran for using a “malign influence” to sway elections to their favor.
Unfortunately, Iran is only one card on the table. There are many other critical issues at play. What happens after Sunday’s elections? Will sectarian violence erupt and bring back the bloody days of 2005-06? According to the Associated Press, the Sunnis fear that “the nation’s Shiite majority will bring to power hard-line religious parties who will only solidify Iraq’s sectarian divisions.” This comes days after the decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep hundreds of candidates from the election for alleged ties to the Baath Party.
Does the government of Iraq remain in gridlock for weeks or months after the elections on who should form a new government? Then, there’s Iran again. How much more muscle will they use to shake up the young government?
Gen. Odierno has said that “If Iran and any other country would cause some significant change in the conditions in Iraq, we certainly would have to consider our timeline.” The general has acknowledged contingency plans but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that a “considerable deterioration” of the security situation would have to occur for those plans to take fruition. All of this to say that Iraq is still very fragile but much improved. Wednesday’s car bombings in Diyala that killed dozens and Thursday’s attacks on polling stations in Baghdad underscore the delicate state. Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, earlier this week told the Associated Press that “in December 2006, every 24 hours on average there were 53 dead bodies in the streets of Baghdad.” Over the past six months, the number of attacks has dropped to less than 20 a day.
Long after the ’07 March elections fade into history, Iraq will continue to need the assistance of its strongest ally. The country’s defense minister, Abdel Qader Jassim, told Reuters last week that “the biggest challenge we have on the security level is the transition of security from U.S. forces to Iraqi forces” which he predicts will last until 2020. In that same article, the writer acknowledged “speculation that Washington and Baghdad may revisit the security agreements they signed in 2008 to keep on a number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq after 2011 as trainers.” Gen. Odierno has already signaled that.
No matter what your view on whether or not President Bush should have gone into Iraq, we have a moral obligation as a country to make this right. In two days, the world will witness the purple finger moment once again as the Iraqi people choose a future that looks more promising than just a few short years ago.
Call me optimistic but the stakes are just too high, the cost has been too great, and the results just may help prove that Iraq is slowly but surely becoming a full participant in the international community.
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.