Whether the next president is named McCain or Obama, he must make clear to Iraqi leaders that the era of unconditional support is over—or risk seeing the recent security gains evaporate faster than a snowflake in a Baghdad summer.
Traveling across Iraq as the surge ended, it was impossible to ignore the dramatic improvements in security. In 10 days on the ground in and around Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, we did not hear a shot fired in anger. Remember the triangle of death just south of Baghdad? Soldiers now jokingly call it the triangle of love.
Jokes aside, Iraq remains a dangerous placeand a number of significant attacks did take place out of earshot during our trip. But overall violence against Iraqi civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces has fallen to levels not seen since early 2004. And as U.S. forces have stepped down from the surge, Iraqi security forces have started to find their feet. In recent months, the Iraqi Army has conducted successful operations in Amara, Basra, Mosul, and Sadr City (and they are currently engaged in operations in Diyala province). Iraqi security forces now control most of the country. In Basra, a southern metropolis infested with Shiite militias a few short months ago, we were able to tour the entire city in an Iraqi Army convoy accompanied by only a handful of coalition advisors.
Up north, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is still deadly. Half of all attacks now occur in and around Mosul, where AQI remnants continue to find sanctuary. U.S. military commanders and intelligence analysts, however, now believe the group has been strategically defeated. AQI remains capable of intimidation, assassination, and periodic spectacular bombings, but it no longer poses a threat to the viability of the Iraqi state. The same goes for Iranian-backed special groups, which have been substantially degraded by recent offensives.
Despite the improved security environment, no one in Baghdad, including Gen. David Petraeus, is doing a victory dance (even as a rising number of commentators in Washington do just that). Those on the ground know that because none of the fundamental political grievances underlying Iraqs ethnosectarian conflict have been resolved, the security gains remain fragile and reversible.
Genuine reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites remains elusive. The Sunni Awakeningthe Sunnis decision to cooperate with U.S. forces against AQIranks among the biggest reasons for the decline in violence in Iraq. But dont be fooled: The awakening represents an accommodation with the United States, not the Shiites who dominate Iraqs government. These security gains could dissolve if the Sunni Sons of Iraqmany of them former insurgentsare not integrated into official forces or gainfully employed, and if emerging tribal leaders dont get an opportunity to share power at the local and national levels through elections. Yet Prime Minister Nuri al-Malikis government, to the great frustration of many Sunnis and U.S. military commanders, has been slow-rolling integration of the Sons of Iraq. Nor is the Iraqi prime minister likely to incorporate the most important elements due to their former allegiances to the Baath Party, Saddams army, or the insurgency. Smoldering grievances among even a small percentage of the 100,000 armed Sons of Iraq could reignite a rebellion.
Much has been made about the supposed goodwill Maliki accrued among Sunnis by taking on Moqtada al-Sadrs Jaish al-Mahdi militia in Basra and Sadr City. But we did not detect this goodwill on the street. Many Sunnis remain deeply distrustful of the central government. Although Maliki has brought a few members of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Accordance Front (known as Tawafuq) back into the government, he is reconciling with the wrong Sunnis. These Green Zone Sunnis have little grass-roots support and are rivals to the Sunni Awakening groups. Indeed, analysts worry that Maliki and Tawafuq are now collaborating to undermine the growing political power of the Awakening in the lead-up to electionsa move with deeply destabilizing possibilities.
Tensions among Shiites pose another threat. This spring, violence in Iraq largely occurred within the Shiite community as Iraqi security forces clashed with Sadrs militia and Iranian-backed special groups throughout much of central and southern Iraq. Since then, the Jaish al-Mahdi has been significantly weakened, special groups leaders have fled to Iran, and Sadr is in the midst of remaking his militia into a social protest movement. Nevertheless, Sadrs movement is hardly defeated, and there are extremist elements calling for a return to violence. Pulling the Sadrists fully into the political process and away from these extremist voices will require fair provincial and national elections. Yet we heard great concerns that the ulterior motive of recent offensives in southern Iraq was to weaken the Sadrists politically, and that Malikis Dawa Party and its chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, will attempt to use their current monopoly on power and control of the Iraqi security forces to tilt the elections in their favor.
Last, but not least, with no overarching oil law and the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk still up in the air, relations between Arabs and Kurds are worsening. Indeed, the dispute over rule of Kirkuk is the main reason the crucial provincial elections law recently crashed and burned in the Iraqi Parliament. Simmering tensions between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen are already bubbling over into ethnic clashes. Thousands of Kurds protested in Kirkuk over the July version of the elections law, which narrowly passed over Kurdish objections before being vetoed by Iraqs president, a Kurd. When a suicide bomber attacked the crowd, a mob of Kurds responded by attacking the nearby headquarters of the Turkomen political front, and Turkomen guards then fired on the crowd. All told, the days violence left 28 people dead and more than 200 wounded.
The same fault line plagues the northwestern province of Ninawa, home to Mosul and the largest remaining contingent of AQI fighters. Sunni Arabs are the majority in Ninawa, but Kurds control a disproportionate amount of power in the provincial council and security forces. Remnants of AQI have seized on this division and managed to carve out a sanctuary. Unlike many other Sunni-dominated areas, Sunni Arabs in Mosul have not turned en masse against AQI because insurgents have wisely focused most of their attacks on Kurdish security forces rather than Sunni civilians. This positions AQI as defenders of the Sunni Arab population against Kurdish expansion, making it difficult to eliminate the last AQI safe haven.
In short, Iraq could easily backslide into mass violence. The surge was supposed to be about buying time to build Iraqi capacity and create breathing space for political accommodation. Yet, as Iraqi capacity and confidence have increased, Maliki and his allies seem less inclined to reach out to their adversaries. By emphasizing capacity over political will, the Bush administration has failed to force Iraqi leaders to make tough compromises. Instead, it too often conveys messages of unconditional support to the Iraqi government that undermine the behind-the-scenes cajoling of U.S. commanders and diplomats.
This flawed political strategy must change. Whether the next president is named McCain or Obama, he must make it crystal clear to Iraqi leaders that the era of unconditional support is over: Make political progress or risk losing American backing. Despite their increasingly boastful rhetoric and demands for a U.S. departure, most Iraqi leaders know they will need continued security, technical, and diplomatic assistance for years to come, even as American forces draw down. That gives the next commander in chief leverage he can use from day one. The United States will never be able to truly cash in on the surge until it cancels its blank checks to the Iraqi government.