The Cable

As Iraqi election worries mount, State and DoD dispute U.S. role

Much ado was made last month about the reported rift between U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill and the top U.S. military commander in Baghdad Gen. Ray Odierno, a rift that Hill strenuously denied. But a real policy dispute lies at the heart of the story, senior diplomatic and military sources in Baghdad tell The ...

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, left, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, center, and Gen. Ray Odierno are seen at a U.S. military base near Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, July 3, 2009. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed, Pool)

Much ado was made last month about the reported rift between U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill and the top U.S. military commander in Baghdad Gen. Ray Odierno, a rift that Hill strenuously denied.

But a real policy dispute lies at the heart of the story, senior diplomatic and military sources in Baghdad tell The Cable. Increasingly, the two men are said to differ over the proper American role in Baghdad, specifically with regard to how heavy a hand the U.S. should apply in trying to influence the decisions of the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The clashing approaches speak to both the institutional culture of the two organizations and their different view of U.S. priorities and interests during this critical time of pullback in the U.S. presence in Iraq, the sources said. “State has a respect for sovereignty and institutional relations,” one official explained. “DOD is much more activist and hands on in pretty much every area. Their attitude is if there’s a problem you get in there and do what you can to fix it.”

The current dispute between the two camps centers around how involved the U.S. should be in the Maliki government’s coalition politics ahead of Iraq’s January 2010 elections, an event that has Middle East hands worried after the Iraqi parliament again failed Monday to pass a crucial law that would govern the polls. The U.S. government has hinged the entire redeployment strategy around the elections law, one government official working on Iraq in Washington said, warning that if it the process drags on, the withdrawal of U.S. troops will have to be correspondingly delayed.

Maliki has assembled a wide coalition for the upcoming poll. But according to reports, Iraq’s lower house of parliament, the Council of Representatives (COR), might remove members of the Independent High Election Commission or withdraw its vote of confidence in the body at the prime minister’s behest — a move that military officials want to try to forestall.

But because the State Department places a high priority on holding the January elections on time as a precursor to fulfilling President Obama’s withdrawal timeline, the embassy favors a more hands-off approach, and the White House is said to agree.

“State believes it would be fraught with danger to intervene on these COR decisions, and yet at the same time, it is equally dangerous if the COR decides to remove IHEC officials so close to the election,” one senior military source in the region said, arguing that State’s concerns about the Jan. 10 election date slipping are overblown.

A senior diplomatic source in Iraq responded by presenting the issue of U.S. involvement in Maliki’s dealings as a balance between risk and reward.

“To what extent do we try to pick winners? What are the risks of that? How have we fared in the past with such an approach? This is not so much a civil-military problem, but it does go to the heart of how to disengage,” the source explained. “Subtly versus with a heavy hand, could well determine what kind of partner we might have in Iraq.”

The source also said State is very involved in the COR processes, including having embassy officers in every meeting and exerting influence when appropriate, such as in prodding individual members and suggesting solutions to get around impasses. “We are on it like the proverbial Iraqi carpet,” the source said.

Clash of civilizations

Maliki alluded to the controversy in his remarks Monday after meeting with President Obama, saying that the two had “discussed the issue of the elections and the importance that these elections be held on time based on the national principles.”

But the elections aren’t the only issue in dispute, some Iraq experts say, pointing to the several outstanding issues between the Maliki government and both the Sunni and Kurdish communities as additional examples of how the State Department wants to disengage from Iraq at a faster pace than the military there.

“The question is, in this period of transition: What are the few things we really need to get traction on, and how much leverage do we have to do that?” said Sam Parker, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It’s about how much you should get involved.”

Major disputes still exist between the Maliki government and the Iraqi minority communities over such things as the status of the city of Kirkuk, the distribution of oil profits, and payments to former Sunni insurgents who have been persuaded to lay down their arms.

“Odierno continues to believe that the Sunni community depends on the U.S. to defend them against the Maliki government,” said one Washington Iraq expert. “State doesn’t believe that the U.S. military should play a significant role in any of that.”

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations, said that part of the dispute was a lack of agreement on the trustworthiness of Maliki.

“The key question is, What model of Maliki’s motivations do we use as we make policy?” said Biddle. “As long as it’s at least an open possibility that he’s opportunistic or trying to consolidate power in his office in an unnatural way, either one of those implies increased U.S. engagement.”

Some Iraq experts defend State’s approach as the most pragmatic and realistic way to acknowledge the fact that the Americans are leaving Iraq.

“The Defense Department has to come to terms with the fact that its influence is waning there,” said Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

“Sure, Chris Hill isn’t doing as much on a personal level as [previous U.S. ambassador] Ryan Crocker did, but it’s not clear that he should be,” said Lynch. “The surge improved things militarily, but the political problems remain and those will have to be solved by the Iraqis. There is little we can do about it at this point.”

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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