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The Fire Next Time

As a Christmas gift to all of us, the U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over.

The last units withdrew from Iraq into Kuwait just before Christmas. The only uniformed American military personnel still in Iraq are the roughly 200 members of an Office of Security Cooperation lodged in the American Embassy that is supposed to coordinate arms sales and supplies to the Iraqi military.

Substantial numbers of ostensibly civilian contractors remain to train Iraqi forces, of course, and the C.I.A. has a significant counter-terrorism presence in-country. The State Department is operating one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world in Baghdad, but the number of American combat forces in Iraq is zero.

How long will it stay that way?

The Iraq that the U.S. has left behind is unraveling faster than even the skeptics in Washington and European capitals feared. The administration of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki is adopting heavy-handed policies that seem designed to strengthen his position by dividing the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

The Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, is essentially on the run, accused by al-Maliki of enlisting personal bodyguards to run a death squad. The capital is on fire from suicide bombs and explosions that have killed scores. And on Monday, a group of Iraqi lawmakers associated with the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections within six months.

The violence and political infighting that have followed the U.S. withdrawal may have been predictable, but it is not a pretty picture. And it has already led a chorus of conservative critics in the U.S., led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, to renew their attacks on President Obama for failing to leave a residual force on the ground on Iraq.

The administration's response has been to point out that Iraq suffered similar and even worse violence and political chaos while large-scale American forces were there, so it is not logical to expect that a smaller residual force could prevent it now.

The challenge for Iraq is to work its way through this mess, using means more political than military, and to avoid outright civil war. The situation may deteriorate further, in fact it probably will, but al-Malaki may be able to keep the lid on for a decent interval.

The challenge for the United States, now that it is out militarily, is to stay out.

There are still some 40,000 U. S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf region, including the ground combat unit just across the border in Kuwait that was the last to leave Iraq. If the chaos in Iraq continues or grows, there are going to be calls to go back in to restore order.

President Obama is said to be adamantly against any re-introduction of U.S. forces. Politically, it would seem to be madness for him to even consider it. He got elected on a promise to end the war in Iraq. He could hardly run for re-election reversing that stance. Famously, he argued during the 2008 campaign that it was "dumb" to go into Iraq in the first place. Surely it would be "dumber" to go back.

The chances that President Obama would re-insert any American troops in the foreseeable future seem slim to none. But the chance that several of the Republican presidential candidates might call upon him to do so is much greater. They are a bellicose bunch, with the exception of Ron Paul, as evidenced by their repeated calls to attack Iran to prevent it from achieving nuclear weapons. Should a suicide bomber attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, or target the U.S. civilian personnel still posted there, the chorus could well arise. That would be the "dumbest."

Terence Smith is a journalist. His website is terencefsmith.com.