With Iraq's cabinet passing a security agreement that will dictate the future of the US role in Iraq, and Parliament being poised to pass it as well, the question now is not at what pace US troops should remove themselves from Iraq, but how to do it in a responsible way that keeps a number of powder kegs from exploding.
The answer comes down to one word: Diplomacy.
Diplomacy is as important for keeping Iraq stable as it is for making sure that US troops are not targets of attacks by insurgents, or caught in the crossfire of an explosion of sectarian violence, as we begin to pull back. And, there is no doubt that there are a number of tensions that could explode, if the US and the next administration does not engage in intense diplomacy not just within the borders of Iraq, but with regional players, as well.
Everything from an oil revenue sharing plan, to the governing of Kirkuk, to Sunni concerns about their own role in the new Iraq, to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and everything else in between could be subject to a small spark that sets of a chain reaction of powder kegs.
Only constant diplomatic and political attention can keep each of those things from blowing up. Diplomacy becomes even more intensely needed when you consider that the security pact includes a timeline for all US troops to be out of cities and towns by June, 2009. That is an extremely ambitious timeline by any standard.
However, there is some hope that just the promise of diplomacy is already playing a role, and can succeed under the Obama administration, if the President-Elect keeps his promise to engage in talks. From today's New York Times:
Several political analysts suggested that Iranian opposition to the pact had softened because of the American presidential election victory of Senator Barack Obama. He has suggested a more diplomatic approach to Tehran and has described a withdrawal timetable from Iraq faster even than the one laid out in the security agreement, though recently he has qualified that stance.
"If George Bush's presidency were going to continue on through 2012, I think people would be a lot more concerned," said Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Having this administration really lightens the blow for the Iranians."
Iranians pulling back their opposition gave flexibility to Iraqi Shiite Cleric Ali al-Sistani to support the deal, which was key to it moving ahead. So, we can see what Barack Obama said during the campaign already showing promise.
Now, it will be up to President Obama to follow-up on the promise of diplomacy to get Iraqi and regional players to all work towards their mutual interest. This includes not just the Iranians, and Shiite leaders, but the Sunni minority and their allies in the Syrian government, which still opposes the deal, as well as the Kurds and Turkey, to settle their tensions, including the future of Kirkuk.
It's a tall order, even if we were talking about a President already in office. With less than six months after he takes office until US troops are expected to be removed from cities and towns in Iraq, President Obama will have absolutely no time to spare.
Crossposted at www.vetvoice.com