Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Blog

By Jeffrey Wright

2012 Spring Intern

When the Obama Administration announced the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, many observers warned that the decision could have disastrous consequences for the fragile Iraqi state. Opponents of the President, including likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, decried the decision as premature and politically motivated, using it as evidence of Obama’s supposed weakness in foreign policy. But, more than four months after the vast majority of American troops left Iraq, these predictions of disaster have not come to pass. This is not to say that Iraq is anything close to the stable, prosperous and democratic country envisioned by the war’s most optimistic advocates in 2002 and 2003. Iraq remains hopelessly divided along sectarian lines and endures a rate of violence unimaginable in most other parts of the world. However, there are some encouraging signs for Iraq as well, not least of which is the end of the American presence.

Iraq’s troubles are familiar by now to anyone with even a passing interest in the country. The overarching theme is sectarian division, a factor which is behind many other issues, from the continued violence, to the economy, to Iraq’s place in the Arab world and the broader Middle East.  The Sunni-Shia split, with Shiites comprising roughly two thirds of the population and Sunnis the other third, continues to be the main axis of Iraqi politics. The ongoing saga of the country’s vice president, the Sunni politician Tareq al-Hashimi, is a perfect illustration of these divisions.  After being warned that he would be arrested by Shiite security forces loyal to Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, al-Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where his Shiite pursuers could not follow. The standoff has lasted months, with the two sides trading accusations. Al-Hashimi recently infuriated al-Maliki and other leading Shiites by visiting Qatar and Turkey, despite the fact that he is ostensibly a fugitive from justice in Iraq. The al-Hashimi saga shows the extent to which the civil state in Iraq is subordinate to political and sectarian concerns. For the Shiite-led government under al-Maliki, the instruments of the state have become tools for accomplishing sectarian goals in much the same way that they were used by Sunnis during the reign of Saddam Hussein. This phenomenon, though hardly new, erodes the legitimacy of the state and feeds the cycle of suspicion and violence between the two groups.

Despite these problems, there have been some encouraging signs of progress in Iraq in the months since American troops withdrew. The death toll in March, which showed 112 deaths due to violence, was the lowest since the American invasion in 2003. For nearly any other country in the world, 112 deaths by violence in a month would be incredible, but in Iraq it represents a remarkable improvement, not only in comparison to the worst days of Iraq’s civil war in 2005-2007, but also compared to just a few years ago. Iraqi officials announced last month that oil production had reached its highest levels since the 1970’s. This reflects the more confident mood of international oil companies, which have invested significantly to modernize Iraq’s antiquated petroleum infrastructure and increase output. Iraq’s increased production also eases some of the pressure on international oil markets created by the effect of Western sanctions on Iran. Increased oil production also means greater revenue for the government, which should enable increased spending on education, healthcare and other social welfare problems, though equitable distribution of those resources is certainly not guaranteed.  

Iraq has also made limited progress in restoring its relations with other Arab countries. The annual Arab League summit, which was held in Baghdad in late March, was largely ineffectual on Syria and other issues, in accordance with the Arab League’s long tradition of inefficacy. But the fact that it was successfully held at all in Baghdad was itself a major triumph. The summit reflected the reintegration of Iraq into the Arab political scene and allowed Iraqis to showcase a newer, safer Baghdad. Iraq still divides the Arab world; the summit was boycotted by many of the Gulf Sunni monarchies suspicious of Iraq’s closeness to Iran. However, the summit also marked the first visit of the Kuwaiti Emir to Iraq in more than 20 years, and attracted the new presidents of Libya and Tunisia. These are positive signs of its new engagement with the rest of the Arab world.

With reasons for both optimism and pessimism about Iraq’s future, the situation is much the same as it was last October, when President Obama announced the total withdrawal of American forces. As Marc Lynch has noted, the scenarios of looming disaster have not come to pass. Instead, the country is mired in the same problems it has faced for the last five years, with many of the same reasons to hope. Most importantly, from an American perspective, none of Iraq’s present problems would have been solved, or even improved, by the presence of American troops. Though there is still potential for disaster, President Obama’s decision has been largely vindicated.    

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