Iraq Withdrawal by U.S. Troops May Spark Power Struggle That Benefits Iran
The end of the long American war in Iraq will begin the test of what that effort has produced.
After almost nine years, $800 billion and almost 5,000 U.S. dead, President Barack Obama announced last week that the 39,000 remaining troops will be home for the holidays, “heads held high, proud of their success.”
They will leave behind a U.S. presence in the form of the world’s largest embassy, without a large military force’s protection, intelligence, supply chain and transportation. Diplomats will encourage peace and development in a largely Shiite Muslim Iraq that is divided by ethnic and religious tensions and sits on the fault line between Persian Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab world.
“This has profound implications,” said Mohsen Milani, chairman of the government and international relations department at the University of South Florida in Tampa, in a telephone interview. “It will intensify the competition for power inside Iraq, leave the Iraqi Shiites more dependent on Iran and the Sunnis on Saudi Arabia and leave the Kurds as orphans who probably will continue to align themselves with the Shiites.”
Gift to Iran
The U.S. pullout is “an unprecedented strategic gift to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Milani.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Iraqi forces may not be ready to provide security and violence will likely rise. U.S. diplomats in Iraq face unprecedented demands. Iran, as a result, stands to gain.
“The reality is that this is not success,” Cordesman said in a telephone interview. “It certainly isn’t a drastic failure, but we are now facing a major power vacuum in Iraq and dealing with a power vacuum of this magnitude is a very serious matter.”
Republican critics such as California Representative Buck McKeon said that leaving now will make it harder for the Iraqis to stabilize their country.
U.S. troop levels in Iraq hit 90,000 in March 2003 with the invasion and increased to 148,000 that year, according to U.S. Central Command figures. The U.S. deployment peaked at 166,300 in October 2007, during the troop surge to curb the outbreak of violence in largely Sunni Muslim Anbar Province. The level is currently about 39,000, according to the Pentagon.
Iraq War Ended
“In Iraq, we’ve succeeded in our strategy to end the war,” President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
The U.S. has “invested too little in the greatest source of our national strength -- our own people,” Obama said. There must be renewed focus on the economy, he said, urging Congress to pass his $447 billion jobs proposal.
The administration proposed leaving a residual force of 3,000 troops in Iraq, if the Iraqi government were willing to extend them immunity from prosecution.
Kenneth Pollack, a director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that number would have been too small to accomplish anything.
Iraqi hostility to the U.S. presence and “ferocious Iranian opposition” to it were all factors in the decision to pull all troops out, Pollack wrote in an analysis of the president’s announcement.
Obama said that talks on training and equipping Iraqi forces will continue, and his announcement doesn’t preclude the possibility that some American troops in Iraq might still be kept or return, especially if ethnic violence increases or Iran makes aggressive moves.
“No one should miscalculate our commitment to Iraq, most particularly Iran,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today on ABC’s “This Week” program. “We’re not going to have bases in Iraq, but we have bases elsewhere.”
The U.S. withdrawal offers Iran an opportunity to form “a link to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Cordesman said, increasing the possibility of a regional clash “at a time when we lack the budget to deal with a serious regional crisis.”
Ahmadinejad Offers Training
“I think we should -- we should have done it sooner, maybe seven or eight years ago, and they would avoid killing so many Iraqi people or Americans, as well,” Ahmadinejad told CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program. He said Iran would wait for the decision of the Iraqi government about training military personnel.
Ahmadinejad also said on CNN that “we have these ties in faith and many of our religious clerics are from Iraq and many Iraqis are Iranian. And we have people in seminary schools from both sides.”
“This is a special relationship and I think it is very unique in the world,” the Iranian leader said on CNN.
The U.S. blames Iran’s elite Quds Force for training and equipping Shiite militia groups in Iraq, said David Newton, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 1984 to 1988. It also has introduced anti-tank weapons into the country, Newton said in a telephone interview.
The U.S. withdrawal “is viewed in the region as a victory for the Iranians,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said today on ABC’s “This Week” program. “I’m very, very concerned about increased Iranian influence in Iraq.”
Administration officials said that reviews over the last seven to eight months have found that Iraqi security forces are ready to take on that challenge.
“One assessment after another about the Iraqi security forces came back saying these guys are ready, these guys are capable, these guys are proven,” Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Oct. 21.
Newton said that, when the U.S. troops leave, they will take with them tools and resources that had been helpful to the Iraqi forces, including intelligence collection capabilities and equipment such as helicopter gunships.
“The Iraqis do have some special forces, but they’ve got a way to go,” Newton said, “Without the U.S. backup, in terms of intel collection, coordination, I think this will be pretty challenging for them.”
Those special forces will be overseen by a divided government without a functioning legislature or officials manning high-level posts, including that of defense minister.
History of War
Robin Wright, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, cautioned against the idea that withdrawal from Iraq will allow Iran to extend its influence. While both are both predominantly Shiite Muslim nations, they fought the Middle East’s deadliest war from 1980 to 1988, leaving 123,000 dead. They are rivals over religious leadership, identity, politics and territory, said.
“Yes, the Shiites have a natural link,” Wright said in a telephone interview. “But the nationalism and history also will be important in defining what happens to Iraq after the United States leaves.”
Newton concurred. “The Shias of Iraq, having waited so long to come to power, don’t want to hand it over to Iran,” he said.
Still, the withdrawal may intensify the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, said Milani. The Saudis blame Iran for fomenting unrest in majority-Shiite Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
The U.S. withdrawal will leave American diplomats in Iraq with new responsibilities and dangers. “The State Department is being asked to do things it’s never done before,” Newton said, including managing a huge contracted workforce.
With the troops gone, security for diplomats and facilities will be the responsibility of some 5,000 contract employees who probably will face increased violence and incidents of terrorism, Cordesman said.
U.S. intelligence officers who remain in Iraq and those contractors will no longer have the stream of information on potential threats that now comes from American military outposts around the country, said a U.S. intelligence official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Cities such as Kirkuk, with four linguistic groups, and Mosul, where there is long-standing friction between Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs, are most likely to erupt, Newton said.
In all, about 16,000 personnel will be assigned to the embassy in Iraq, about 1,700 of them diplomats, experts in fields such as business and agriculture and law enforcement officers, while around 5,000 will be security contractors to guard personnel and facilities including consulates, according to State Department figures.
The newly established Office of Security Cooperation in the Embassy will have a core staff of 160 civilians and uniformed military alongside 750 civilian contractors overseeing Pentagon assistance programs, including military training. They will be guarded, fed and housed by 3,500 additional contract personnel.
The security cooperation office will also operate out of 10 offices around the country, half of them shared with other embassy personnel. The embassy will have consulates in Basra, Irbil and Kirkuk. The State Department will provide Iraqi police training with its own personnel.
“What’s unusual is the scale and the militarization of the foreign service” as it oversees the thousands of security personnel, Newton said. The agency will even run its own airline to shuttle staff around the country. “This is not the kind of thing that diplomats do,” he said.
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