U.S.-Iraq Relations Enter a New Era

U.S. Forces Complete their Strategic Reset as U.S. Diplomats Set New Tone

Peter Juul examines the more normal but still complex U.S. relationship with Iraq internally and in the region going forward.

As the last troops withdraw from Iraq, the U.S. relationship with Iraq will normalize but remain complex and important to U.S. foreign policy in the region. (AP/ Marko Drobnjakovic)
As the last troops withdraw from Iraq, the U.S. relationship with Iraq will normalize but remain complex and important to U.S. foreign policy in the region. (AP/ Marko Drobnjakovic)

See also: The Iraq War Ledger by Matthew Duss and Peter Juul, Turning the Page in Iraq by Brian Katulis

Our nation is well on its way to withdrawing the last of our troops from Iraq before the holiday season begins, just as President Barack Obama promised. Under the U.S.-Iraq security agreement our troops must be out by the end of the year, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Washington this week will be matched by U.S. military ceremonies in Baghdad and elsewhere highlighting the final strategic reset of our Iraq policy sometime this week.

Prime Minister Maliki’s visit will mark this key achievement of the Obama administration, but so too will his talks with President Obama and other top administration officials as the United States and Iraq enter into a more normal relationship. The U.S. military is leaving Iraq but it is clear that the United States will not be leaving Iraq any time soon. As a result, it’s worth charting out where the new U.S.-Iraq relationship will and should be going in the near future.

More than eight-and-a-half years after the U.S. invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains a work in progress at best. It remains an exceptionally violent country despite declines in violence: 355 Iraqi civilians are documented to have died of violence in October. Terrorists continue to attempt to foment renewed sectarian violence and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has placed new restrictions on movement of its personnel in the former Green Zone—now known as the International Zone—due to an increased threat of kidnapping.

Iraqi politics remains fragile. Its politicians took nine months to form a government after March 2010 parliamentary elections left no clear winner among the three major Arab blocs. Sectarianism remains the dominant political idiom, as emphasized by Prime Minister Maliki’s continued anti-Baathist rhetoric, legislation, and arrests. The prime minister himself is accused of increasing authoritarian tendencies by centralizing personal control over security services and using them to gain political advantage. Corruption remains endemic and unauthorized absenteeism is rampant in Iraq’s parliament.

Finally, Iraq’s regional role remains undefined. As a senior Obama administration official recently told a group of defense and foreign policy experts, Baghdad wants to play a role in foreign policy developments in the Middle East. Yet Iraq remains largely disconnected diplomatically from Gulf Arab states and has voted against Arab League sanctions against Syria over its brutal crackdown on domestic protesters.

That’s why the United States will continue its deep engagement with Iraq as we transition to a normal relationship with Baghdad. The State Department will take sole ownership of U.S.-Iraq relations and will command a total of 16,000 personnel operating in Iraq—5,000 of which are security contractors—with a $6 billion budget and three major diplomatic posts: in Baghdad, in Basra in the south of the country, and in Erbil in the Kurdish region in the north. While senior administration officials express confidence in the State Department’s ability to accomplish its new mission in Iraq, experts remain skeptical that it is up to the task.

On the security front the United States will continue to help Iraq build up its internal and external security forces. The State Department has already taken responsibility for the U.S. police-training program, which is expected to grow to between 800 and 1,000 contractor personnel. This program faces criticism from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, or SIGIR, over a lack of proper planning and formal Iraqi buy-in, but the State Department bureau responsible for the program says the deficiencies identified by SIGIR are being rectified. Police training is clearly important to the future internal security of Iraq. If the State Department can in fact correct the problems identified by SIGIR it will go a long way toward proving its critics wrong.

Similarly, the U.S. military drawdown does not mean that the United States is ending its military-to-military relationship with Iraq. On the contrary, U.S. and Iraqi armed forces will enter into a relationship comparable to those between the United States and other countries in the region with the opening of the Office of Security Cooperation–Iraq, or OSC-I. Some 250 to 400 U.S. military personnel will be assigned to OSC-I to help train, equip, and support Iraq’s armed forces as they integrate new weapons such as M1 tanks and F-16 fighters into their inventory.

Ten OSC-I sites are already effectively up and running, according to a senior administration official, while support contractors for expensive, hard-to-maintain equipment like F-16s will also likely be involved in the future. Ultimately, transitioning to a more normal military-to-military relationship similar to those the United States has with other countries in the region will allow the United States to continue assisting the Iraqi military while satisfying Iraqi demands to assert sovereignty over their country.

Politically, Iraq remains fragile and divided along sectarian lines. Prime Minister Maliki continues to show signs of authoritarian behavior while stoking sectarian-based fears of a Baathist return. Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, and the federal government in Baghdad remain contentious due to the lack of resolution over Kirkuk and other disputed territories and chronic disputes over the legality of oil contracts signed by the KRG. And the political agreement that brought Maliki back to power after last year’s national elections appears to be a long way from fulfillment. In addition, the defense and interior ministry posts remain unfilled and are temporarily occupied by Prime Minister Maliki himself.

The United States has a complicated role to play in Iraqi politics. Washington appears to have clearly backed Maliki in the lengthy government formation process of 2010, while trying to placate leading vote-getter Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiya bloc with a “National Council for Strategic Policies.” In doing so the United States reinforced the sectarian character of Iraqi politics while solidifying Prime Minister Maliki’s personal grip on power. Senior administration officials are aware of his incipient authoritarianism and failure to live up to agreements with other parties. They say they are constantly “engaged” with the prime minister to hold him to his commitments.

But given his conspiratorial political mindset and continuing failure to live up to agreements with other political parties, more than constant engagement with Prime Minister Maliki will likely be necessary to ensure Iraq heads further down the democratic road rather than backsliding into increasing authoritarianism. In the long run the United States will likely have to consider an approach that focuses on the overall democratic health of the Iraqi political system rather than one that focuses on favored key political actors.

With regard to relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad, the United States can continue to play the role of an honest broker between the two parties. The U.S. military played a critical role in fostering cooperation between Kurdish security services and the Iraqi military. U.S. diplomats should step up their efforts to resolve or at least manage differences between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the KRG. Keeping relations between the KRG and the central government nonviolent and relatively constructive will be a key task for American diplomats going forward.

Finally, the United States has much work to do to reintegrate Iraq into the regional diplomatic architecture. Senior Obama administration officials say that the Iraqi government is eager to play a role in foreign policy developments in the region, and acknowledge that the United States has not been as proactive on this issue as possible. Syria is an obvious place to start: The United States should engage Iraq more deeply on regional questions and induce Iraq to shift its relatively pro-Assad stance so it can play a constructive role in ending internal bloodshed.

Similarly, the United States can make greater efforts to bring Iraq and other Gulf Arab countries together. The Obama administration is already working on this angle, claiming credit for the recent visit of the UAE military’s chief of staff to Iraq, and working on the integration of Iraq into regional military exercises. More broadly, however, the Obama administration still needs to determine where Iraq fits in the United States’ overall Middle East policy, especially an Iraq that is ready and willing to play a bigger role in regional affairs.

Critical to this effort will be establishing some sort of working relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Baghdad’s largest and most influential neighbor. The largest obstacle to improving Iraq-Saudi relations will be the mutual paranoia of the two countries. Riyadh sees an Iraq led by Prime Minister Maliki as a pawn of Iran, while Maliki sees Saudi Arabia as supporting his domestic political rivals. But the complex and sensitive set of problems regarding the Kurdish PKK terrorist organization has not stopped Turkey, Iraq, or the KRG from forging a set of mutually beneficial relationships. The United States should explore the possibilities vis-à-vis Iraq and Saudi Arabia as well. Simply getting Iraqi and Saudi leaders to stop slinging accusations of treachery and intrigue at one another would be an enormous step forward for Iraq’s position in the region.

Ultimately, withdrawing U.S. military forces from Iraq and establishing normal relations between Iraq and the United States will serve both Iraqi and American interests well. Most importantly for Iraqis, they get to fully reclaim their sovereignty after eight-and-a-half years of U.S. military presence in their country. This reclamation of Iraqi sovereignty is equally beneficial to American interests in Iraq because it creates the perception of relations between two sovereign and equal states rather than an image of a more powerful state dictating terms to a weaker one.

The U.S.-Iraq relationship will by definition be based on mutual consent and mutual interest, providing legitimacy for ongoing American security support to Iraq. To be sure, there remain significant problems in Iraq. But by putting the U.S. relationship with Iraq on a more sustainable and secure footing, the Obama administration has put the United States in a better position to address these challenges.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst