A recent wave of violence in Iraq, including a triple car bombing today in Baghdad, should be a cause for concern. Its main source is the lack of political reconciliation among Iraqis; the planned American troop withdrawals for the most part have yet to occur. President Bush’s surge reduced the levels of violence in Iraq, but it was not able to bring about the tough political compromises necessary to bring about reconciliation – leaving the Obama administration a potential powder keg.
During his trip to Iraq yesterday the President reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw all American forces by the end of 2011, redefine the mission to focus on training and counterterrorism, and send a clear message to the Iraqis and the world that America’s troop presence in Iraq is coming to an end.
One of the unnoticed evolutions in Iraq policy over the past few months is that there is now a broad consensus both here and in Iraq that for the sake of American and Iraqi interests it is time for American forces to redeploy.
Tomorrow marks a major milestone in Iraq as the Iraqi Government takes responsibility for paying and integrating large numbers of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) - the former Sunni insurgents who began aligning themselves with the U.S. in 2006 and were one of the main reasons for the reduction in violence. There are still significant tension between the Shi'a dominated central government and the SOIs; and, if the government does not continue to pay these fighters or integrate enough of them into the security forces, it could spell trouble.
As the country’s focus has shifted to the economy, 140,000 American troops remain in Iraq and events there are not suspended. While violence has decreased dramatically in the past year and a half, Iraqi politicians have not taken advantage of the situation to come to the political compromises necessary to bring about stability.
Iraq is entering a pivotal period. With little political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia since the surge began a year and a half ago, the U.S. has now begun to transfer authority over the predominately Sunni Anbar province to the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. While conservatives have prematurely declared victory in Iraq, progressives have consistently warned that political reconciliation and the establishment of the Iraqi government will be the hard part.
In his last days commanding U.S. forces in Iraq, General Petraeus issued words of caution – the security gains that had been achieved were “tenuous.” The increase in U.S. forces played an important role in creating the decrease in violence, but during this time almost no progress has been made on political reconciliation.