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Leaving Iraq: Why total U.S. military withdrawal is best

Informed Comment
June 24, 2011
Mark Kukis
The Obama administration's move to accelerate a U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan inadvertently highlighted an unsettled question about American forces in Iraq. Will U.S. troops leave Iraq entirely at the end of 2011, as outlined in a standing agreement between Washington and Baghdad? Or will Iraq and the United States strike a new deal that allows a significant U.S. military presence to remain?
With the 2011 withdrawal deadline nearing, the Pentagon and key figures in Washington have for months signaled a willingness to leave a large number of troops in Iraq, perhaps as many as 15,000. Fears of instability and a potentially meddlesome Iran have left some U.S. strategists feeling that the U.S. military needs to keep a strong posture inside Iraq. Under the withdrawal agreement the Iraqi government must technically ask for a continued U.S. troop presence, however. So far, no request has come, and that appears unlikely to change before the end of the year. This is good, because the Obama administration should resist any urges it may have to linger militarily in Iraq.
In May, thousands of Iraqis marched against a lengthened American military stay at the behest of Muqtada al-Sadr, a pivotal political figure who has vowed to reform his Mahdi Army militia and attack U.S. troops en masse anew if they remain past the 2011 deadline. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is highly unlikely to defy al-Sadr and extend an invitation to U.S. forces beyond 2011. Al-Maliki owes his current government coalition to al-Sadr, who could collapse the government by withdrawing the support of his parliamentary bloc.
In 2009, as the U.S. withdrawal was beginning, I interviewed roughly 100 Iraqis in Baghdad at length for a book of mine recently released, Voices from Iraq: A People's History, 2003 2009. The book is an oral history of the war in Iraq as told entirely by Iraqis, who spoke with candor at length with me on a wide range of topics. The subject of whether U.S. forces should stay or go came up frequently, and Iraqis generally had one of two opinions based on their sectarian identity. Shi'ites tended to be eager to see U.S. forces go and the sooner the better. The newly empowered Shi'ite majority often sees the U.S. presence as an impediment to the new order in Iraq, where wealth, power and privileges have been flowing into Shi'ite circles since the downfall of Saddam Hussein at the expense of the Sunni minority. (In other opinion polling, a super-majority of Iraqis has tended to want US troops out in fairly short order, a finding that remained the same over many years, and which would be consistent with the majority Shiite population of some 60% of the country being in favor of an early departure of the Americans).
The Sunni Arabs in our sample tended to want the U.S. troops stay in force. Many of them see the American military presence as the one institution that can stop a ruthless marginalization at hands of the rising Shi'ite majority. Sunni fears are well founded. The Iraqi government has shown little regard generally for the Sunni minority and been downright cruel at times by encouraging Shi'ite militias in sectarian violence. (Other polling has also found that Sunni Arabs are disproportionately worried about poor security once the Americans are gone, though the greater Sunni Arab opposition to a complete withdrawal has not always been replicated. Of course, some Sunni Arabs are against the US remaining in their country, and they have demonstrated in tandem with the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, though in small numbers).
Kurds too fear that they will lose out to the Shi'ite majority in the absence of a U.S. military presence, which has served as something of a brake on tensions in the dispute around Kirkuk. But Kurds are in a much stronger position militarily, economically and politically than the Sunni minority and know they can weather any serious confrontations fairly well even without American forces on hand to play referee.
That Iraqi opinion is divided over the question of a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq is the main reason American forces should go entirely. Any troops remaining in 2012 would become a lightening rod for political discord, which has a tendency to become quite violent quite quickly in Iraq. Of course some U.S. troops are likely to remain in Iraq to continue working with the Iraqi security forces, but only token number should stay. Calls for a residual U.S. force of up to 15,000 troops, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham has made, would rightly leave many Iraqis feeling like a galling reminder of the deeply resented occupation is still with them. Al-Sadr would certainly not tolerate such a sizable U.S. troop contingent, and neither would Sunni militants still active in the country. A U.S. footprint that heavy would inevitably draw attacks from Shi'ite and Sunni fighters alike.
The prospect of continuing attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq is not just a problem for the military, which has already lost nearly 4,500 men and women in Iraq. Attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq have side effects that stoke instability generally. Secular, nonsectarian Sunni militants, men who consider themselves Iraqi nationalists for resisting a foreign military presence, drift into the company of Iraq's al-Qaeda contingent when seeking help to lash out at U.S. forces. This drift in effect bolsters al-Qaeda radicals, allowing them to pursue more easily sectarian violence against Shi'ites. Increased sectarian aggression on the part of al-Qaeda produces a violent response from Shi'ite militias such as the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government, whose security forces are quick to indulge in brutal crackdowns against Sunni communities where militants are thought to be active. So, a U.S. troop presence, big or small, inadvertently furthers sectarian violence. This has been the case since the early days of the U.S. occupation, when a Sunni nationalist resistance movement formed to fight U.S. forces but was quickly hijacked by al-Qaeda.
None of these points are intended to suggest that prospects for Iraq will brighten significantly in 2012 if U.S. forces are gone. Iraq has problems, major problems. Ask any Iraqi. The issues that make Iraq one of the most violent and troubled countries in the world will not disappear if U.S. forces go. But a continued U.S. military presence will only deepen the worst of Iraq's problems. And after nearly ten years in country, the U.S. military's ability to help Iraq solve its many problems is surely spent.
Mark Kukis is a journalist and writer now living in Nairobi, Kenya. He has written for Time, The New Republic and Salon, and was the White House correspondent for United Press International, 1999-2001. His most recent book is Voices from Iraq: A People's History, 2003-2009
This is a guest column for Informed Comment
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