The U.S. end game in Iraq: With Iran ascendant, should U.S. troops stay on?

Jul 19, 2011 8:52am

ABC News' Lara Setrakian (@Lara) and Molly Hunter (@mollymhunter) report:  Iraq is coming out of the deadliest month for U.S. troops in more than two years, and moving into what may be the final six months with foreign boots on the ground.  As of now, all 46,000 U.S. troops are planning to leave in December but with violence up and the government still finding its balance, some voices in Baghdad and Washington are questioning whether to send U.S. troops home, and when. “Iraq is not stable yet. All elements of a failed state exist … we need some kind of support from outside,” Mohammed Kiyani, a Kurdish MP, told ABC News. But Iran’s allies in Baghdad, led by Muqtada al Sadr, effectively want the U.S. out as of tomorrow. “I want the U.S. out the moment the security agreement specifies that the role of army is over. I don’t want them to stay even for an extra day,” says Sadrist MP, Yousif Al-Taie. Somewhere in between the Sadrists and Kurds lie Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya parties, neither of which has come out publicly on the troop extension issue. The decision, the Iraqiya bloc claims, rests on the prime minister. Maliki's political future may depend on a U.S. withdrawal, and Kiyani isn’t sure he would be willing to risk losing the support of the Sadrists. Washington has said the U.S. is open to keeping troops beyond the withdrawal date, but only if Iraq asks nicely, and soon. Last week in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted at the U.S. frustration, asking, "Do they want us to stay, don't they want us to stay? Damn it, make a decision." But no one wants to be the first out of the gate. Maliki has quietly voiced concern over Iraq's security after December and publicly hinted at his desire for more U.S. “trainers,” but does he have the political capital to spend? State of Law MP Ali Alshallah suggests Americans make the offer. “With so much to lose, Americans should approach Iraqis and ask for the extension and not wait for Iraqis to ask,” Alshallah said. General Major Jeffrey Buchanan, the senior spokesman for U.S. Forces in Iraq, says that’s not likely. While the U.S. is deeply worried that violence will intensify and militant attacks will increase, domestic and financial support for a military presence in Iraq has plummeted.  IRAN'S MOMENT OF OPPORTUNITY With the U.S. perceived as being in retreat, analysts say Iran sees a moment of opportunity. And they’re seizing it with deadly force — U.S. officials blame Iran and Iranian-backed groups for the recent escalation in violence. "We are very concerned about Iran and weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq, and the reality is that we've seen the results of that,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told troops in Baghdad last week. “In June, we lost a hell of a lot of Americans." According to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, Iranian-backed Shiite militias account for 40% of American troop deaths. But Iranian-backed Shiite militias aren’t new to Iraq; what makes this latest stint different? “The effectiveness, and the lethality,” says Buchanan, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. He noted that overall attacks are down from their 2007 peak, but that the deadly capacity of insurgent groups is scaling up. “These illegal militias are better armed than ever before. We’ve seen an increase in the number of Iranian made rockets flowing into Iraq, and improvised rocket-assisted munitions are designed to penetrate armor.” Analyst Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says that this was to be expected — an extension of the 8-year rivalry between the U.S. and Iran, hoping to claim Iraq as a sphere of influence. “These groups are jockeying for a slot, preparing politically for a post-U.S. Iraq. Everyone wants a piece of the power,” he says. Most especially, Muqtada al-Sadr, according to Katzman. The radical anti-American Shiite cleric has re-positioned himself as a kingmaker in Iraqi politics. Last week, Sadr said that while his feared Mahdi army will remain dormant, he vowed to activate his Promised Day Brigade to attack U.S. troops if they stay beyond December, creating a “graveyard for American troops.” “The militias want to drive the U.S. out,” says Katzman. “What Sadr wants more than anything is to make sure the U.S. leaves.” If Iraqi politics are a see-saw, with the Iran-backed Sadrists on one side and the U.S. interests on the other, the departure of American troops will almost certainly tilt weight towards Iran. At the fulcrum is Prime Minister Maliki – long looking to balance his relationships with Iran and the U.S., he’ll now have more incentive to favor Tehran. “With the U.S. leaving, it’s in Maliki’s interest to turn back towards Sadr … Sadr’s power will increase exponentially. He’s destined to be very powerful,” says Omar Al-Shahery, a former Iraqi defense official and researcher at RAND. What are the implications for the U.S.? It potentially cripples the long-term partnership between the U.S. and Iraq, an investment of so much blood and treasure. “The U.S. knows they don’t have a partner. They know that Iraq has already become part of the Iranian regime,” says Shahery. “It’s effectively an extension of Iran already.” IRAQ COULD BE IRAN'S NEW SYRIA As a consequence, Katzman says that given the political instability in Syria, Iran will be in the market for new friends – a rising partner in the Arab world. “Iran will look to Iraq to replace Syria,” he says. “Iran needs to show that it is not isolated, that it has options, Syria has played that role but suddenly with Assad out of the picture, Iraq’s importance will increase.” Shahery echoes that. “Iranians will seize the opportunity gradually … Iran needs an ally that can feed itself, support itself. Syria was harder to maintain, but Iraq, with strategic borders and oil is a better option.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t pushback — Iraqis who resent the idea of becoming an Iranian playground of interests and influence. “[Iran should not use] Iraq as a battleground to finish business with other countries like [the] United States or Saudi Arabia,” says Kiyani, the Kurdish MP. “They should let us build or own future and our own country and to settle our problems.” Sean Kane, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace, writes that other players may balance against the Iranian influence more effectively than the U.S. Turkey, he says, may be Iraq’s best choice to limit Iranian adventurism and Kurdish separatism. “Turkey supports a robust Iraqi political process in which no single group dominates,” Kane writes. “It certainly seeks a major role for its mostly Sunni political allies in Iraq, but has also developed working relationships with the major Shiite political parties.” As Maliki subtly moves away from Washington, without moving too close to Tehran, can the U.S. help curb the Iranian influence in these next six months? “All is not lost,” says Shahery. “The U.S. underestimates their influence in Iraq. They always have. It is a matter of will on Washington’s part to show a firm hand.” Katzman doesn’t think an Iran-dominated Iraq is a done deal. “They don’t have an excessive influence yet,” he says. “Iraqis are resistant and suspicious.” Others say Iraqi nationalism as a force will push back against Iran, and create a hesitancy to abandon the U.S. As U.S. troops reach the home stretch in Iraq, Washington needs to manage a fluid political landscape with one less card in its hand. That requires deft diplomatic maneuvering and high stakes strategy – with Iran potentially gaining from each misstep. TWEETBACK TUESDAY @Lara and @mollymhunter: As politics and security stumble in Iraq, should U.S. troops stay past December 2011? What if Iraqis ask them to stay?

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