Staying engaged in Iraq

Marco Vicenzino Contributor
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The relative stability in Iraq over the past two years has deceived many to conclude that Iraq will eventually sort itself out. Such complacency will unwittingly contribute to greater turmoil. Whatever progress has been achieved is modest at best and far from irreversible. U.S. engagement at all levels remains indispensable to Iraq’s future and broader regional security.

The desire by many in Washington to hastily turn the page on Iraq, and eventually Afghanistan, in order to focus on pressing domestic issues will result in blowback. It risks creating a wider security vacuum which radical forces are more than willing to fill. Furthermore, premature withdrawal will eventually require more resources to deal with greater long-term instability. Failure to focus today will require a higher price to be paid tomorrow.

Realities on the ground must determine any withdrawal process and not political calendars. Rash actions, impulsive policy-making and self-serving rhetoric promoting the eagerness to withdraw for short-term political gain will tip the fragile scales, embolden militant factions and further destabilize an already volatile situation.

Throughout the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Iraq dominated the foreign policy debate and Afghanistan was termed the forgotten war. With the tables now turned, it is difficult to imagine from recent media coverage that U.S. troops in Iraq actually still outnumber those in Afghanistan.

Since taking charge as prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki grew increasingly bold in rhetoric and action and electoral victory appeared inevitable at a certain point. However, continuous fatal bombings since late 2009 and chronic political infighting caused election delays and serious doubts about Iraq’s future and the Prime Minister’s ability to maintain control.

The carnage endured during Iraq’s electoral process has led many to question whether it is a price worth paying. The level of voter participation during this election, and future ones, will provide a considerable part of the answer. Ultimately, Iraqis across the political and sectarian spectrum will shape their future but elections alone will not determine it. Elections clearly remain far from perfect but will continue to play an important part on Iraq’s long road to normalcy. Past methods of determining political power through sheer force and coercion is no longer a viable option.

The success of any coalition government will ultimately depend upon the extent of its ability to pursue political reconciliation, forge greater consensus and bridge the gap between and within sectarian groups. The fair resolution of various issues, such as the final status of Kirkuk with its vast energy resources and sectarian symbolism, will play a determining factor. Sectarianism is and will remain a reality for a long time to come. However, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq possesses one of the largest reserves of oil in the world. The vast majority still remains untapped. Through the equitable distribution of benefits, Iraq’s political establishment possesses the resources to incentivize those interested in stability to the negotiating table.

Ostracizing those demonstrating a real interest in peace on the basis of past political affiliations, specifically membership of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party, only fuels the fires of insurgency. Doing so may produce short-term political gains for some but poses one of the greatest threats to Iraq’s long-term stability and regional security.

The reality of Shiite supremacy is beyond question. How skillfully they are able to maintain order and ensure that other minorities are included remains a far more serious question. Throughout past and recent turmoil, the Shiite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sistani, has consistently proven to be a skillful player and moderating factor on more tempestuous elements within Iraq’s complex politics. He has consistently maintained an astute balance of political power between religious authority and civilian secular rule. In addition, he has rarely if ever favored one Shiite faction over another and has adeptly understood the need to engage other sectarian groups. Sistani’s influence and survival remains critical to Iraq’s prospects for greater stability and the ability of Shiites to lead Sunni, Kurds and other minorities toward a more secure future.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at msv@globalsp.org.