In dealing with Iraq, President-elect Obama faces a dilemma. Contemplating a military withdrawal from Iraq without a timetable and without putting the military and political situation in complete order would open the door to civil war, internal score-settling, and chaos. Not moving forward on the military redeployment and keeping U.S. troops inside Iraqi cities, however, would maintain the status quo and hold the U.S. administration hostage to regional and internal developments.
The strategic option is to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government and various other players, which begins with redeploying U.S. troops to fixed points and military bases to conduct specific missions. This option requires confronting the main challenges in Iraq, first and foremost that of security. Specifically, it means integrating the Sunni Awakening Councils into security and military institutions and working with internal and regional (Arab) players to check Iranian influence gradually. With security gains in hand, the new U.S. administration also will need to pay more attention to helping the Iraqi government to build up infrastructure and provide basic services in order to reinforce the relationship between the citizen and the state.
Improved Security but Challenges Ahead
President-elect Obama will not face as tough a military and security situation as has existed in recent years. Al-Qaeda has lost ground, with some pockets of activity remaining, and many Sunni militants have been integrated into the Awakening Councils. Although the councils achieved real victories against al-Qaeda and reaped the benefits of its errors in dealing with Sunni society, this does not mean an end to the security challenge. There is still a chance that armed Sunni resistance will return should there be a setback in incorporating the Awakening Councils into Iraqi institutions or if the political process should deadlock and sectarian divisions prove stronger than integration and coalition efforts.
Moreover, the Sadrist movement, which has clashed previously with U.S. and Iraqi troops and has support among the Shi’i masses and significant political representation in the current Iraqi Parliament (some 30 out of 275 seats), has once again emerged as a challenge. Although the attacks on Mahdi Army strongholds launched by Iraqi troops with U.S. support did weaken the Sadrists, the underlying problem is with the social and political environment that nurtures the Mahdi Army, which ensures that the Sadrist militias’ military presence could be resurrected relatively quickly.
Integrating the Awakening Councils
Among the concerns of Awakening leaders who have founded political entities to take part in public life are that Awakening members—currently 100,000 strong—will be left to an unknown fate when the councils are broken up. Despite U.S. and Iraqi government assurances, only 20 percent of such members will be integrated into the security and military apparatus according to Iraqi government statements. Will the Iraqi government take over paying those not invited to join the monthly salary of up to $300 they were receiving from U.S. troops? Or will they return to the specter of unemployment and need, some of them perhaps falling victim to vengeance attacks by al-Qaeda?
While it might be best to delay the decision to dissolve the Awakening Councils and have the army take over their outposts, what will be required from the Obama administration is to provide ironclad guarantees and timetables to integrate the largest number of Awakening members possible. Meanwhile, the Awakening fighters left out need to be shown proof that they will not be left without work or a source of income, and that the Iraqi government will take it upon itself to appoint them to public-sector civilian jobs or cover their living costs until job opportunities are available. If this process does not go forward smoothly, there is a real danger that what happened early in the U.S. occupation—when the Iraqi army was dissolved and a large percentage of its jobless soldiers took up arms against U.S. forces—will recur.
Even if the Awakening forces are integrated, there remain mainstream segments of the Sunni population who are determined to reject integration into political life and still advocate (directly or indirectly) militant action against the occupation and the Iraqi government. The Association of Muslim Scholars still rejects political participation, even if it publicly advocates peaceful opposition. Meanwhile,  ten factions joined together under the name “Jihad and Change Front”  continue militant action, and all the while the danger of al-Qaeda lurks in the background, awaiting any chance to derail the political process and security gains for Sunnis.
Regarding the Shi’a, the Sadrist movement is difficult to contain and will continue to generate political and security fears even as the situation in Iraq stabilizes. Moderate Shi’a forces must face down the movement and weaken its recruiting and political mobilization capabilities by strengthening the government’s authority in regions where the Sadrists are strong currently. The Iraqi government must improve social services, infrastructure, and living conditions in these areas in order to reduce the number of Shi’a drawn to the Sadrist movement, most of whom are disgruntled about the overall situation.
The Iranian Role and Weak Arab Presence
Iran’s sway in Iraq will be one of the largest challenges facing the Obama administration, especially as Iranian vital national interests do not lie with the success of a U.S.-Iraqi status of forces agreement, but rather in a sort of managed chaos so that Iraq remains a political card in Tehran’s hand to increase its regional influence and ability to press Washington. Iran has already employed a number of its tools to obstruct a U.S.-Iraqi agreement. Several Iraqi and non-Iraqi Shi’a religious authorities issued fatwas declaring the agreement religiously impermissible, while Sadrist representatives staged a sit-in in Parliament to prevent the agreement from being signed and Tehran’s leaders, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced in no unclear terms their opposition to the agreement.
One of the positive developments in recent months is the improved relationship between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Arab neighbors. Al-Maliki visited several Arab capitals, improving his image, and a new tone emerged in the relations between the two sides. This resulted in several high-level visits to Baghdad by Arab leaders, most prominently King Abdullah of Jordan, and announcements by various Arab countries that they would reopen their embassies in Baghdad. The Arab role is weak compared to Iran’s deep-reaching influence, however, and there are also still mutual fears and suspicions between the Iraqi regime and the Sunni Arab neighborhood.
The relationship between Iraqi Shi’a and Tehran is not as cozy as some imagine, and from an Iraqi perspective is akin to a forced marriage. But neither al-Maliki nor any other Iraqi prime minister will be able to break allegiance to Tehran as long as he lacks the Shi’i popular support to do so and Arab strategic allies. This option does not exist at present, but there are indicators that it could be realized in the future, at least over the medium range, and progress must be made in this direction.
What the Obama administration can do in the near term is to press Arab governments to increase their influence in Baghdad and improve their relations with all Iraqis (Shi’a, Kurds, and Sunni). Enhanced diplomatic exchanges and economic cooperation with Arab neighbors would strengthen the Iraqi government’s hand in dealing with Iran and reduce Iranian hegemony. Confronting Tehran within Iraq requires a long-range political and cultural strategy based on boosting the Iraqi government’s autonomy and enhancing the credibility and vitality of its political and constitutional institutions, while building trust among the different factions—all key factors in building a new Iraq.
Strengthening Trust in State Institutions
Among the leading reasons behind the political crisis and weak Shi’a loyalty are the state’s failures in social development, basic services, and rebuilding infrastructure. While the U.S. and Iraqi governments have been focusing on security and political issues, social and economic development, service provision, and infrastructure have been neglected. Recent reports by Amnesty International and Oxfam note that many Iraqis lack access to safe drinking water, food, and jobs, and that as much as a third of the population needs emergency assistance. The Obama administration will need to pay more attention to such issues, which will be essential to reinforcing the political process and building a healthy relationship between citizens and state institutions in order to trump sectarian and ethnic struggle.
In view of Iraq’s improving but still fragile situation, it is critical that President-elect Obama indicate that Iraq remains among his top foreign policy priorities and concerns, giving no hint to U.S. enemies that Iraq has lost importance for Washington or that there is a vacuum while the new administration makes its plans. He must make clear that the unity and stability of Iraq are a vital, irreplaceable U.S. interest.
Muhammad Abu Rumman is a Jordanian scholar and writer. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.