Obama’s Iraq

With U.S. combat troops out, the country remains fragile. But the drawdown has gone much better than anyone expected.

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View a slide show of scenes from a still-fragile Iraq

U.S. President Barack Obama has a delicate balance to strike in Tuesday’s address to the nation on the subject of Iraq. On the one hand, he should take credit for prudently managing a major downsizing of U.S. forces. Even some Bush administration officials are complimenting the current government on its pragmatic approach — Vice President Joe Biden has come in for special praise for his behind-the-scenes role in both Baghdad and Washington. Gen. Ray Odierno likewise deserves acclaim as he departs Iraq after spending much of the last seven years there.

On the other hand, this is no time to crow; Iraqi politics are at their most fragile point in perhaps four years, and certainly their most fragile since early 2008.

Violence is trending upward, with many more attacks against the Iraqi security forces (ISF) recently, though the police have been the main target. Most of the brutal slayings are attributed to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which remains distressingly effective despite losing three-fourths of its top leadership over the past year. On several recent occasions, AQI managed to overpower and decisively beat back the ISF, even if just momentarily — AQI has even gone so far as to raise its flag locally in places it overran. The U.S. military notes that al Qaeda fighters are trying to regain a foothold in Anbar and Baghdad specifically.

Traffic cops are also increasingly becoming targets. They have little to no protection and are unarmed in most cases. Attacks against them instill general unease among Iraqis about security. Several dozen have been killed just in the month of August.

Other bombings have targeted places that were once relatively quiet. The city of Kut in Wasit province, for example, experienced just last week its most lethal car bombing since the war began. There were additional attacks against police in Kut during the tragic Aug. 25 coordinated deadly attacks across the country.

Targeted assassinations also seem to be occurring with greater frequency recently against politicians and elders. The “death squad” style attacks are reminiscent of what happened during the height of the civil war. Leaflets have been left on bodies indicating that such is the fate for cooperating with national security forces.

But violence levels remain 90 percent below those of the peak of the civil war. The ISF seems to be effective at stopping attempted acts of violence through measures such as traffic-pattern changes, car bans during major events, sweeps and arrests after an attack, and so on. The ISF has been leading these efforts for more than a year now in most places; in many cases U.S. assistance has been quite minimal.

And though there has been an uptick in violence recently, that has historically been the case during Ramadan. This year’s pattern has been a bit worse than that of the last year or two, but not dramatically so.

Importantly, horrific incidents of violence have draw criticism from the Iraqi people. And polls show that the United States is more popular in Iraq today than perhaps at any time since 2003, as our Iraq Index tabulates.

In fact, the majority of Iraqis seem to wish the United States was not drawing down its forces. Iraqis have doubts that the ISF can protect them. It will be fascinating to see whether a new Iraqi government, once formed, quickly asks to renegotiate the current bilateral arrangement whereby all U.S. forces are supposed to leave the country by the end of 2011.

One of the most pressing issues in Iraq on the eve of the drawdown is little talked about in the United States: electricity. Overall, Iraq’s electricity production is way up; the only bad news is that demand is up even more. Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity says that Iraq is currently generating 8,000 of the 13,000 to 15,000 megawatts of power required to meet present needs. That compares very well with the 4,000 megawatts that was characteristic of Saddam’s rule and also the early post-Saddam years. Funding is increasing and capabilities are expected to grow, but it’s likely that increasing demand will continue to outpace plans to develop the grid.

Taken together, these and other statistics paint a better picture of life in Iraq today than one might expect. Of course, any optimism has to be tempered in light of the inability of Iraqis to form a new government. Sectarian wounds that have only begun to heal could easily reopen; on top of that, territorial disputes in the north between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen remain unresolved.

The most important thing Obama can do with his speech Tuesday is to look forward, rather than backward, and explain his strategy for helping Iraqis put together a government that is accepted as legitimate by most citizens. Ultimately, Iraqis will make the key decisions, but the United States can and should play a constructive role in the Iraqi political process — something it has not always succeeded at doing. Iraq has come a long way, and Obama deserves a good chunk of the recent credit — but it will all matter very little if things fall apart in the coming months.

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