Iraq's Real Deadline

The true test for Iraq will come from its next round of elections -- and the real U.S. troop withdrawal.

As U.S. forces pull out of Iraq's urban areas, everyone is waiting with bated breath for the results. Will there be a surge in violence, ending the relative peace that many Iraqis have enjoyed for the past year? Will al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) rear its head once more? Will the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seize the chance to impose a more autocratic regime?

Although all these questions are real, the crucial moment is not this Tuesday's withdrawal. The real test for Iraq will come far later -- and it will be less about the baby steps of U.S. troop withdrawal and more about whether the country can solve its myriad political debates.

It's easy to overstate the importance of the June 30 troop withdrawal. U.S. forces are leaving areas that they entered before and especially during the surge. This concerns mostly Baghdad, where the insertion of U.S. troops at the neighborhood level helped end the 2005-2007 civil war and froze into place the de facto rule of the country's Shiite Islamist-led government -- at the expense of the Sunni Arab population, a good part of which fled. Iraqi state security forces now control the capital with little opposition. Although bombs do continue to go off, attacks are a distant and infrequent reality for most of this enormous city's inhabitants. A U.S. withdrawal is unlikely to change the situation dramatically.

Cities with fewer U.S. troops are likely to be affected even less by the pullout. In the south, local security forces have been in control of urban areas for some time, with varying degrees of success. Problematic cities, such as Mosul and Baquba, will remain violent regardless of whether the few U.S. troops there stay or go. An interesting exception may be towns in Anbar province such as Falluja, once a hotbed of insurgency. Here, a dormant AQI might seek to exploit the security vacuum, playing on the frustrations of former rebels who joined the now famous "Sunni Awakening" to put down the insurgency, but have yet to be integrated into the new state.

There are still more ways in which the withdrawal is less than some make it out to be: "Urban areas" have been redefined as city centers, meaning that U.S. forces will remain close at hand should anything go wrong. And U.S. military advisors, riding in repainted vehicles, will continue to provide essential support to Iraqi forces patrolling the cities.

The real turning points over the coming months will be the country's parliamentary elections in January and the comprehensive withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by August 2010. In the case of the elections, the June 30 pullout date will be very politically and symbolically important for a prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who is readying himself for a tough battle at the polls. Should violence increase as the United States scales back, his law-and-order platform will lose its luster and his prospects for another term may fade. There might well be increased levels of violence in the run-up to the elections, as well as political challenges from Maliki's opponents who could try to weaken him such that he can no longer effectively govern. If he succeeds in keeping things more or less under control, however, Maliki will be able to boost his electoral hopes by portraying himself as the man who restored both Iraq's security and sovereignty.

But the August 2010 departure of all U.S. combat troops could be the most pivotal event. U.S. forces have kept Iraq's fractured political class stable enough to talk rather than fight. Because negotiations have delivered very little in the way of compromises on key issues -- how power, resources, and territory are divided or shared -- a U.S. pullout could well lead to conflict. Preventing that fate might require the Obama administration to make good on its pledge to facilitate a "responsible" withdrawal by lending strong diplomatic muscle to U.N.-led efforts to mediate a new set of political agreements. No Iraqi politician will compromise on hot-button questions such as federalism, an oil law, and the status of Kirkuk in an election year, but much could be done in the coming months to lay the groundwork for a deal set to be concluded following the elections but ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.

Much could go wrong, and much probably will. The warning signs will include flawed elections, an end to political negotiations, a return to sectarian fighting in Baghdad, and a renewed refugee flow. Or Iraqis could manage to keep talking and somehow muddle through. Either way, this week's much-ballyhooed deadline won't decide much of anything.



Ignoring the Green Revolution

With so much at stake, why don't Palestinians care about Iran?

Last Friday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where old men sat at sidewalk coffee shops with cards and hookahs, and the city's upper crust sipped cappuccinos to trance music in upscale eateries, Palestinians spoke of the dollar's fluctuations, Israel's latest military activities, and even Michael Jackson's passing. They touched on nearly everything -- with one notable exception: the volcanic protests in Iran. Whereas the drama on the streets of Tehran has captivated the world, here, the news was hardly noticed. "We have bigger problems of our own," was the collective reply from one cafe.

Palestinians are accustomed to their double curses of occupation and corruption, and they're used to watching an unending routine of election protests elsewhere in the Middle East. This time, however, their indifference is harder to explain. Although Israelis see Iran as their greatest threat, Palestinians tend to view it as their best international protector. Power shifts in Tehran, whether through war or internal unrest, could have reverberations in Palestine. A weakened Iran, for example, might offer less support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, thereby tipping the balance of power in favor of its Western-backed rival faction, Fatah.

So why the quiet? Disbelief in the possibility of change, support for Iranian incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aid to Hamas, and perhaps misconceptions about Iran itself are likely at work. What's more, many Palestinians view turmoil in Tehran as nothing more than an internal issue, a "wave that will pass," in the words of Hamed Idrees, an officer with Fatah's Palestinian Authority forces in Hebron.

Even as a muted debate about the election emerges, one would be hard-pressed to find a Palestinian who wouldn't favor Ahmadinejad's fiery denunciations of Israel to a quieter, perhaps more democratic, Iran. Palestinians favor nearly anyone who is anti-Israel. They see Ahmadinejad as a leader who doles out social and economic support to poor villagers in his own country -- and to Palestinians through financial and military aid to Hamas. Palestinians get immense satisfaction from seeing their bully, Israel, get bullied by Iran. So long as Ahmadinejad is around, there's little chance that Israel will attack Iran, they argue -- "because Iran is strong," as the popular mantra goes.

It's no surprise, then, that the theory of Western-orchestrated protests is the most common explanation for the events in Tehran on the Palestinian street, particularly among the young or those who cannot see further back in Iranian history than the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ibrahim Shamsani, a 30-year-old merchant in Ramallah, has been closely following the post-election uproar in Iran that has left tens of reformist protesters dead. "No problem. Let them finish off every one who is against Ahmadinejad," he says.

Yet some observers contend that misconceptions about Iran -- not inertia or affection for Ahmadinejad -- are more to blame for this type of reaction. The parallel between cries for freedom in the Palestinian territories and among protesters on Tehran's streets is often missed, says a half-Iranian human rights worker living in Ramallah who spoke anonymously to protect her family in Tehran. "Many Middle Easterners think that Iran is conservative, religious, and democratic," she says. "What Palestinians don't know is that Iranians have been living with frustration for so many years and that the fraud of these elections has given them the opportunity to express their frustrations," she explains.

Another story is emerging among a smaller group of Palestinians who are well versed in Iranian history and politics. Journalists in Ramallah say that the rift is evident in Palestinian Arabic-language newspapers, where columnists unanimously see the young generation in Iran as an aggrieved party demanding its rights. Columnists writing there don't speculate about a Western conspiracy. Others who are well-read share this pro-protester view.

For most Palestinians, it matters little that, while Palestine is entirely Sunni, Iran is a Shiite theocracy; Iran's support of the Palestinian struggle overshadows sectarian divisions for many people.

But others perceive Iran's attempts to spread its influence across the Middle East as less benign. Khader Torkman, a Fatah loyalist in Jenin, sees Iran's support of Hamas as a power play, a way for Iran to pull puppet strings from afar. "Until Yasir Arafat died, Palestinians refused the idea of letting other countries or policies influence us internally," Torkman said. "I don't have a problem with Iran, but when Iran enters into our internal policies and uses us as a tool, it is not in the interest of the Palestinian people. The effect of Ahmadinejad all over the Middle East is harmful."

Yet even among those who question Iran's ambitions, given the choice, there is no hesitation over which side they support. As Torkman put it, "I prefer the dominance of Iran to America and Israel."