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Shai Baitel Headshot

Obama's Last Day in Iraq

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President Barack Obama's announcement to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of August was not only his making good on a campaign promise, but also an important, possibly last-ditch attempt of damage control for the Democrats prior to the November elections. While there is broad support for the withdrawal it is important to consider the timing and the possible consequences. Domestically, the timing could not be better for Obama. But what about Iraq? What about the region? What are some of the dangers involved?

Despite all efforts, Iraq, once one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, with the world's third largest oil reserves, has never been so fragile and exposed. Following the March 2010 elections and the ongoing challenge of reconciling between warring Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions, the United States is urging the Iraqis to make difficult compromises fast so that a government could be formed prior to the U.S. troop withdrawal as this could bring some ease to the country. Arab countries blame the United States for the animosity, unrest and division in Iraq and view Obama as the leader who now neglects Iraq's fate by failing to protect the country's meager process toward stability, on the altar of domestic policy and election year politics.

In the lead-up to the decisions to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, Obama could have considered some of Israel's past experience with withdrawals because they provide insights how the U.S. withdrawal will play out. In 2000 Israel pulled back its forces from southern Lebanon, in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 425. In his 1999 election campaign, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak had promised to withdraw Israel's troops. The aftermath of the withdrawal was sobering when Hizballah, supported by Iran, established itself there and amassed arms right next to Israel's northern border. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip which then fell into the hands of Hamas, also a client of Iran. Gaza turned into a launching pad for rockets into Israel. Like the withdrawal from Iraq, both troop pullbacks enjoyed broad support at the time. Today, however, only few would consider them a success. Israel's partial and gradual withdrawal from the West Bank, while leaving a reduced presence, seems to have even allowed for stability and economic development. The lesson from Israel's experience for Obama could have been that a premature withdrawal of combat troops carries the danger of unintended consequences, namely seeing enemies fill the vacuum left behind. A more gradual withdrawal of troops might have maintained the security necessary for increased political stability.

Iraq's neighbors are now eager to expand their influence in Iraq. The best way to counter negative foreign interference and avoid a power vacuum after an American troop withdrawal would be to have the Iraqi factions come together and form a unity government that would be able to gain even grudging regional approval. The greatest concern in this context is Iran and its readiness to increase its influence in Iraq in order to export its revolutionary Shiite ideology. Iraq's Arab neighbors worry about the inability of Obama and the international community to restrain Iran and its march toward nuclear weapons capability. From 1980 until 1988 Iran struggled to defeat Iraq ;in 2003 the United States took out Iran's arch-enemy Saddam Hussein and now Obama seems to be handing Iran Iraq on a silver platter through a premature withdrawal of combat troops.

Iran's agenda in Iraq can be detected in a recent speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once again claimed that the events of 9/11 had been staged, and, that the Americans exaggerated the tragedy's death toll. In his usual fashion he continued that 9/11 conveniently prepared the ground for the invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ahmadinejad seemed to be addressing not only the Iranians but also the Iraqis whom he wants to assure that things will change after the Americans are gone. Clearly, he has his own idea what the future of Iraq should look like and it is not difficult to guess that it involves heavy Iranian meddling. Analysts have pointed out that Iran believes the United States is a declining power and that Iran is stepping up support for attacks in Iraq in order to create the impression that the United States was chased out of the country. But, Iran had to learn that not all its plans work out as when after the Iraqi elections an Iranian-influenced Shiite bloc actually did not end up dominating Iraqi politics as had been hoped. Iran might transform its role of a spoiler and adopt more of a soft-power approach. In such a scenario Iran would try step up its influence in politics, religion, social life, and the economy. There is no doubt that Iran is able to adapt in order to get what serves best the cause of its Islamic Revolution.

Faced with this fact it is now important to assess what we are left with in Iraq. The fight for the country's future is raging. Iraq's neighbors are jockeying for position for the time after the U.S. withdrawal and Iran's emboldened leaders, bent on exporting the Islamic Revolution, seem to be a major threat. It is justified to worry about America's waning influence in Iraq while Ahmadinejad is scheming to increase Iran's influence there. All that the U.S. government can do now is a last-minute effort to pressure the Iraqi politicians to end the bickering and make the painful compromises that would help bridge the dangerous Sunni-Shiite divide, for the sake of Iraqi unity and stability. The last day of Obama in Iraq is approaching and one has to hope that it will not spell Ahmadinejad's first day there.