Will Iraq, finally, fall apart? As U.S. forces in Iraq – which stood at 144,000 at the start of the Obama administration – fall from their current 56,000 to 50,000 by the end of the month, the trauma of the past seven years threatens to erupt once again. More than five months after the March 7 elections, there is no Iraqi government, and none in sight. And here’s the problem: without some sort of understanding between the United States and Iran, whatever government in Iraq eventually emerges will be hopelessly divided. On top of that, there’s no movement toward a resolution of the Arab-Kurdish split in Iraq, either.
The Obama administration spent the week engaged in happy talk about Iraq, touting the scope of its withdrawal, pledging that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and putting an optimistic spin on the news. Hitting the airwaves, speaking to reporters, giving speeches, and appearing at Washington conferences, top U.S. officials involved with Iraq generally glossed over the horrific violence inflicted on Iraq by an unnecessary and criminally illegal war, and they suggest that the future is rosy. Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s point man for the Middle East, told a packed conference at Center for a New American Security, where he used to work, that the insurgency is mostly gone, that Al Qaeda is “decimated” and “weaker than it’s ever been,” that the Shiite-led Mahdi Army is “largely disbanded,” and that other Shiite militias in Iraq’s south are not a worry. “We don’t judge that they represent a strategic threat to the government of Iraq,” he said. The Sons of Iraq, the name given to the Awakening movement of mostly Sunni, former insurgents that was backed by the United States starting in 2006, is a bit restless, he suggested, but there’s no sign that they’re returning to the ranks of the insurgency.
At the same meeting, Michael Corbin, the State Department’s top officer for Iraq, dismissed the influence of Iran. “The record shows that Iraq is standing up to foreign [i.e., Iranian] influence,” he said. He said that Iran’s clients in Iraq – meaning the Shiite-led alliance of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, sponsor of the Mahdi Army – have been “pushed back.” Asked whether Iran is exercising a “veto” over the formation of a new government in Iran, Kahl said, “I don’t think that there’s an Iranian veto.” He said that Iran has used “every arrow in its quiver” to extend its influence in Iraq, and failed.
If the administration really believes that it’s checkmated Iran in Iraq, and that it can push for the formation of an American-leaning government there to the zero-sum exclusion of Iran’s own interests, then they’re making an enormous mistake. Not only does Iran see Iraq as a place for countering American influence in the region, but from a strategic perspective Iran will never allow the coming to power of a government in Iraq that could become a powerful adversary to it – especially one whose armed forces are armed and trained by the United States. According to today’s New York Times, at the very least the United States is planning to supply Iraq with advanced weapons, including M-1 tanks, F-16 fighter jets and other sophisticated equipment, all of which will come with contingents of U.S. soldiers and contractors for training, maintenance, and resupply.