The Iraqi Elections and Beyond: Hope for the Best, Plan for Something Less
March 5, 2010
Q1: In his February 17 speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Ambassador Christopher R. Hill noted that a top U.S. priority in Iraq is helping it “build political and democratic institutions in a secure environment.” How are Iraqi and U.S. officials preparing for potential violence related to the upcoming March 7 national parliamentary election?
A1: Without question, there has been a marked increased in the number of violent attacks across Iraq. It is no coincidence that these are occurring with increased frequency on the doorstep of national elections. For example, on Wednesday, March 3, three suicide bombs killed more than 30 in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province just 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Iraqis and Americans should accept that Iraq’s maturing but still immature political landscape will remain violent for some time to come. Failure to do so engenders grave risks, an indiscriminate overreaction by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) being chief among them.
Deputy Interior Minister Ayden Khalid noted that the ISF expected further attacks and would continue tightening security in the run-up to the March 7 elections as a consequence. The Iraqi government’s enhanced security measures include a nationwide vehicle ban, airport closures, visible deployment of hundreds of thousands of ISF, and increased surveillance at checkpoints along major roadways. In addition, the U.S. military presence is not insignificant: just under 100,000 troops remain in Iraq advising, mentoring, providing essential combat support, and conducting limited combat operations. However, for over a year, U.S. forces have deferred to Iraqi security primacy, conducting all operations in coordination with the ISF in accordance with the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. Thus, U.S. forces have little, if any, freedom to act unilaterally—either in response to election-related tensions or more broadly against lingering insurgent or terrorist challenges. In the end, the most important remaining U.S. military contribution may be preventing unacceptable ISF overreach through 2011 and beyond.
Q2: Some experts predict that the new Iraqi government may not be fully seated until late summer. As U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq to meet the U.S. government’s August 31 deadline, what mechanisms are in place for the government of Iraq to request U.S. military support in the event of increased ethnosectarian violence, particularly high-profile attacks?
A2: In accordance with the bilateral Security Agreement, the U.S. government has committed to withdrawing its forces from Iraq by December 31, 2011. Furthermore, President Obama has noted that by August 31, 2010, U.S. combat operations will conclude and the U.S. force presence will transition principally to a train and advise mission, while still conducting discrete counterterrorism operations as required through the end of 2011.
From a Washington perspective, the U.S. withdrawal plan rests on very favorable assumptions, principal among them that Iraq’s political and security institutions will continue to develop responsibly along a predictable path. However, it may be more prudent to hope for the best, but plan, on some level, for something less. As U.S. forces draw down in accordance with the president’s guidance, resurgent ethno-sectarian violence or a resurgent Sunni nationalist insurgency may impel the Iraqi government to request U.S. military support. Indeed, under certain circumstances, some populations may view U.S. forces as more impartial than the ISF. For their part, U.S. diplomats and senior military officers should be prepared to secure key U.S. interests and help the Iraqi government confront challenges ranging from coordinated, high-profile attacks to widespread hostile acts by competing parties consistent with the return of full-scale civil war.
The ability of the U.S. military to do anything meaningful will change substantially by the end of 2010. So it remains important for senior U.S. officials to decide now where, when, under what circumstances, and to what extent the United States will respond to grave difficulty or failure on the part of the Iraqi government in this regard. Toward that end, the U.S. government will maintain open channels of communication through the U.S. embassy, U.S. Forces-Iraq, and a continued advisory presence within key ministries to ensure that the United States can provide the support necessary to prevent or limit escalation of violence that exceeds the Iraqi government’s capacity.
Q3: What is the likelihood that the United States and Iraq will negotiate a new Security Agreement?
A3: The current Security Agreement outlines the rights and responsibilities of the U.S. military within Iraq. This bilateral compact expires on December 31, 2011, which is also the deadline stipulated for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq. In a mere 19 months, asking the ISF to be fully capable of preventing a return to civil war and maintaining an environment secure enough for the unimpeded growth of a new, more durable democratic Iraq may be unrealistic. Therefore, the two nations should begin discussing the parameters of a lower visibility U.S. presence that stretches beyond December 31, 2011, but is robust enough to continue developing and supporting the ISF commensurate with its needs and monitoring the ISF to ensure it exercises its missions responsibly, all while helping prevent open conflict between competing sectarian constituencies and the return of terrorist sanctuaries.
Stephanie Sanok and Nathan Freier are senior fellows in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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