June 23, 2009 — Fresh concerns about the US-Iraq relationship are rising as the draw-down of US forces approaches. A suicide bombing in Kirkuk Saturday was the deadliest in Iraq in more than a year. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government continues to fail to approve crucial laws for administering the country.
With the 133,000 US troops in the country set to be withdrawn from Iraqi cities by June 30, demands on the diplomatic relationship between the two countries will only grow, some Iraq specialists warn.
Going further still, some of them worry that Iraq will be neglected as the US turns its focus to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. If that happens, Iraq could slip back into instability and violence, reemerging as a top American security issue.
"President Obama cannot afford to lose Iraq," says Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "If nothing else, there's so much potential for spillover into Saudi Arabia, Syria, and elsewhere in the region."
Harsh reminder of perilous security
Saturday's suicide truck bombing near the ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk, which killed 75 people, is a reminder of Iraq's continuing fragility. It is part of a recent uptick in violence that appears designed to try to rekindle sectarian tensions and includes bombings and other violence in Baghdad Monday that claimed 33 more lives.
The Iraqi government's failure to pass several important pieces of legislation also poses a threat to the country's political stability. They include:
•Approving a national oil law for an equitable distribution of the country's oil revenues.
•Finding a solution to Kirkuk's ethnically based territorial dispute.
•Passing legislation to help combat rampant corruption.
A key task for the US
The US must figure out how to continue to nudge Iraq to address issues of mutual concern, even as the US footprint lightens, some analysts say.
"Stability in Iraq is going to continue to be based for some time on an American security presence, and we have not done a good job of communicating that reality to either the Iraqi people or the American people," says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy think tank in Washington.
A less physically imposing but still robust American military and diplomatic presence should focus on developing "good governance" principles at all levels of the Iraqi government, says Mr. Nagl, author of a new report, "After the Fire: Shaping the US Relationship with Iraq." Moreover, the US must concentrate on building professionalism within the Iraqi military.
Despite recent events, Nagl sees little likelihood that Iraq will slide to the brink of civil war, as it did in 2006.
"This is a different, stronger Iraq today, and that fact, plus a still-substantial American commitment for the next several years, mean it's likely Iraq will not resume civil war and will not export instability to the region."
Others are less confident that the US is sufficiently focused on Iraq.
Mr. Pollack of Brookings recommends that President Obama add to his list of czars and special envoys a White House "point person" for Iraq. "The message right now is that they [in the administration] don't really care about Iraq, and that is being signaled to the Iraqis," he says. "It's encouraging the good guys [in Iraq] to do the wrong things."