October 24, 2011

Analysts Say Violence Could Escalate After U.S. Troops Leave Iraq

REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND WASHINGTON -- Analysts warned Friday that a resurgence of ethnic and sectarian violence was a real possibility when the United States pulls its remaining forces out of Iraq at the end of the year.

“Is Iraq doomed to another round of horrific civil war? Not necessarily,” wrote Kenneth M. Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  “But the history is pessimistic and the trends are worrisome.”

He said  elements among the country’s majority Shiites were using their ties to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s regime to get away with violence for political or economic gain, or out of vengeance or fear.

Among Sunnis, he said, there was talk of a need to re-arm to protect themselves and their communities. Kurds, meanwhile, saw the reemerging tensions and wondered whether secession might finally be possible, he said.

“America's troops in Iraq -- disliked, misunderstood and resented though they were -- were Iraq's best shot at achieving a stable, pluralistic, prosperous future,” Pollack said. “Without them, Iraq is not yet condemned to darkness, but its chance for redemption has dimmed perceptibly.”

Iraqi political analyst Haider Saeed said U.S. forces had worn out their welcome after years of bloodshed.

“My concern is that the political class and the ruling class in Iraq don’t have a vision of a long-term relationship of partnership with the U.S.A.,” Saeed said. “We have to remember that those who are ruling Iraq have an education of antagonism against America."

A resurgence of violence between Iraq’s major ethnic and religious groups would be a setback for U.S. interests in the region, said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security.

“The U.S. clearly has an interest in the security situation in Iraq, not least that Iraq has excess oil production capacity, which would be put at risk if instability re-erupts,” Nagl said.

Increased violence in Iraq would also benefit Iran, which “has to be feeling pretty good right now,” he said.

Nagl said President Obama’s announcement Friday that the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops would leave Iraq by Dec. 31 gives him a “short-term political boost with his base,” liberal voters who backed him when he made opposition to the war a centerpiece of his election campaign.

But Nagl added that the announcement months before the last U.S. forces leave could be a way to put pressure on Iraq’s government to reconsider its opposition to granting immunity from prosecution for any troops that remain.

“It makes all the sense to continue to have boots on the ground,” Nagl said.

The question of immunity for U.S. troops was the main sticking point in talks about leaving a small residual force in Iraq in a training capacity. It is a sensitive issue for Iraqis because of the high casualty toll among civilians.