The good news from Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Iraq for the Fourth of July is that the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to reducing US forces to 50,000 by next month, ending the US combat role, and pulling all of its remaining forces out of Iraq by the end of next year.
That's despite pressure from hawks and neoconservatives to slow the drawdown. Of course, there is still talk about renegotiating the terms of the US withdrawal in 2011 by establishing some kind of long-term US-Iraq military agreement. Such an agreement, however, is not up to the US alone. It will also depend on what the Iraqis think, and if Iranian influence in Iraq continues to gain strength as the US departs -- as seems likely -- and if the US and Iran continue to engage in a confrontation over Tehran's nuclear program and Iran's regional role, then the likelihood of a lasting US-Iraq aliance vanishes.
In fact, Iraq has become a battleground for competing US and Iranian influence, and Iran has the upper hand.
In his visit to Iraq -- his 17th -- Biden seemed not to care who forms a government in Iraq. "He made it very clear that we have no candidates, we have no preferred outcomes, we have no plan," said an aide to Biden, on background, briefing reporters in Baghdad. Pressed repeatedly by reporters, the administration officials conducting the briefing refused to say anything about the kind of government they'd like to see take shape. All things being equal, however, it's clear that the United States would prefer that Iyad Allawi's secular, nationalist, and anti-Iran bloc, Iraqiya, have a major role, either leading the next government or in some sort of grand coalition with Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law/Dawa Party bloc. But the United States has few cards to play, and as the level of US troops declines, it will have fewer still.
One administration official, in the briefing, tried to make a Goldilocks-like case that the Iraqi porridge is just about right:
"Can I just -- I just want to add one thing, which I meant to say before, which is, it’s been very interesting to read some of the stories about the United States and Iraq, because one group of stories seem to suggest that we’re abandoning Iraq and that we’re disengaged. Another group of stories suggests that we’re interfering too much in Iraq’s business, which suggests to me that sometimes the porridge is just right."
That's a false dichotomy, however. The United States isn't abandoning Iraq. Quite the reverse: Iraq is abandoning the United States, in favor of closer ties with Iran. The problem is that even if the United States wanted to "intefere too much" in Iraq's affairs, it would fail. Such interference would backfire, stir Iraqi anti-Americanism, fuel the support for rebels such as Muqtada al-Sadr, and push Iraq even closer to Iran.
The clearest sign of the lack of US influence in Iraq is that oil contracts, once seen as a great prize for the US occupiers of Iraq -- remember Ahmed Chalabi promising to make sure that US oil companies get the lion's share of Iraqi oil -- have gone not to US firms but to rival firms from China, Russia, and other Asian and European companies.
The New York Times, reporting on Biden's trip, noted with a straight face:
"In a sign of how much further Iraq must go, [Biden] did not venture beyond the secure bubbles of the massive army base at Camp Victory or the barricaded streets of the Green Zone."
It's been four months since the March 7 elections in Iraq, and it appears that the political parties are no closer to forming a government than they were on March 8. That's partly illusory: according to one Iraqi sources, Allawi has acceded to the inevitability of an alliance between Maliki and the overtly pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance, the Shiite bloc that includes Sadr and the old Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), now called ISCI. (In exchange for his agreement, Allawi wants the mostly symbolic post of Iraqi president.) That's an alignment that Iran would probably support, because it puts the government into the hands of the Shiites, and the Obama administration would have little choice but to go along.
But Biden reportedly expressed concern in Iraq that any deal with excludes Allawi, who represents the hopes of anti-Iran Iraqis, Sunnis, and secular forces, could lead to a reversion to far greater violence than the current, low-level campaign of bombings and assassinations now underway. Many of the assassinations have targeted Allawi's party and its allies, and while the killings are nomnally blamed on remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it's possible that at least some of them are being conducted by the same Iranian-backed death squads that have operated in Iraq with efficient lethality since 2003.