On Feb. 10, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden gave an interview to CNN. Most of the next day's headlines predictably focused on his assessment that al Qaeda probably isn't capable of mounting another 9/11-style attack. What garnered far less attention was his take on Iraq. "You're going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer," he declared. "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government." He predicted that the withdrawal would count among the "great achievements of this administration."
Perhaps these claims are not surprising. President Barack Obama himself declared the war as good as over in his January State of the Union address. U.S. casualties have dropped sharply over the past two years, as have losses among Iraqi civilians and soldiers. Around half of Iraqis now say they are optimistic about the coming year, according to recent polls. What's more, in just a few weeks they'll have a chance to cast their votes in a fresh parliamentary election -- something that remains a dramatic exception to the political rule in the modern Middle East. All this offers grounds for hope.
And yet one can't help but think that Obama is running the risk of repeating one of his predecessor's most notorious blunders. Just weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush famously celebrated victory on an aircraft carrier festooned with a "Mission Accomplished" banner. His optimistic announcement preceded seven more years of war and the loss of thousands of troops, hundreds of billions of dollars, and vast quantities of global prestige -- along with the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis as well as the effective collapse of Iraq's state institutions, economy, and public infrastructure.
So, perhaps a bit of caution is in order, particularly because the Obama administration's haste to divest itself of its Iraqi liabilities could actually end up making everything worse. Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, puts it well: "The question I find myself asking is whether they're focused mainly on having their troops out by the deadline, or whether they're intent on getting their troops out in a way that will leave behind a stable Iraq."
It's a legitimate worry. Elections are a great thing, but in a country as fragile as Iraq they have the potential to tear open wounds as well as heal them. Many Iraq-watchers were hoping that the March 7 election would give members of the restive Sunni minority, many of whom have felt excluded since the 2003 invasion, occasion to enter into the political scene and help foster a more stable state. That, in turn, might provide insurance against the re-emergence of the sort of vicious sectarian conflict that plagued Iraq from 2006 to 2008.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Just a few days after Biden issued his rosy assessment, the Iraqi National List (known as "al-Iraqiyah"), a coalition of secular political groups that includes some of the country's most prominent Sunnis, announced that it was suspending its election campaign. The reason: A government commission had banned 511 candidates -- many of them Sunnis -- from running due to their alleged sympathies with the now-outlawed Baath Party. (Some have since been reinstated, but it's hard to know because the commission hasn't released all the names to the public.)
That fanned Sunni suspicions that the government -- specifically, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies in the Shiite religious parties -- aims to deny them political power. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads al-Iraqiyah, warned that excluding the candidates could trigger a new civil war. As if on cue, bombs exploded outside the offices of some Sunni-dominated political parties in Baghdad, wounding 11 people. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi -- the shadowy head of the underground organization "the Islamic State of Iraq," whose mostly Sunni membership includes members of al Qaeda -- immediately chimed in to assail the elections and vow that he and his followers would disrupt them.
The election blacklist is just part of a broader trend, says James Danly, an Iraq expert at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. In recent months, "anti-Baathist sentiment throughout southern Iraq" has led to purges of local government officials -- a trend that he finds "even more worrisome" than the blacklisting of candidates from the parliamentary elections. He speaks of a "sense of increasing disenfranchisement" among broad swathes of the Sunni population. "Those of us who watch it really have the feeling of increasing sectarian division."
These rising tensions will not necessarily lead to all-out civil war, some Iraq experts say. Reidar Visser, an Iraq analyst at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, notes that the Iraqi government now boasts a proper security apparatus "and will be in a position to deploy this to repress internal enemies." D.J. Elliott, a retired U.S. Navy officer who covers the Iraqi security forces for Defense Industry Daily and his own blog, concurs. Combat experience, U.S. training, and new equipment have made the Iraqi military a force to be reckoned with, he says: The Iraqis "could have taken over the internal security portion a year ago. They aren't perfect, but they're as good as most countries in that region."
The irony, Visser warns, is that the government's new and improved security forces might stoke violence. "The risk is a turn towards authoritarian tendencies by a regime that will lack popular legitimacy due to a failed democratic process," he explains. Some experts note that the Maliki government has a track record of using certain elements of the security forces -- such as an elite counterterrorism force that takes orders straight from the prime minister -- for arresting political opponents. Viewed through that prism, the ban on Baathists looks less like a sectarian provocation than an attempt by Maliki and his allies in the religious parties to keep a potentially powerful secular rival -- Allawi's al-Iraqiyah -- from gaining a foothold in parliament. The repercussions could put Iraq's still-fragile political institutions under serious strain.
On top of all this, the fate of oil-rich Kirkuk -- claimed with equal passion by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen -- remains uncertain. The issue of who controls the region has simmered since the 2003 invasion, but U.S. officials -- with some vital but little-noticed support from the United Nations -- have repeatedly managed to head off mounting confrontations over the region's status between the rulers in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. That tenuous state of affairs is unlikely to hold much longer. During his term as prime minister, Maliki has increasingly assumed the role of the protector of Arab interests in the region, going so far as to deploy the Iraqi Army in the province at the end of 2008.
This means that the United States might be branding unfinished business an unqualified success. Few of these problems are likely to be resolved by the time the pullout begins. What's more, it's easy to imagine that a weakened U.S. presence will give the Iraqis less incentive to find workable compromises. "The internal problems in Iraq are very serious indeed," Hiltermann says. "It all depends on whether the political order [can] withstand an American troop withdrawal."
That sounds about right. However you look at it, this war isn't over yet.