Turning the Page in Iraq

Reduced violence and signs of political progress in Baghdad are heartening. But the United States remains essential to Iraq's success.

With the announcement last week of Sadrist support for Nuri al-Maliki, the tortuous negotiations over the formation of a new Iraqi government enter a new phase. The deal is by no means done and much hard bargaining remains, but it is increasingly likely that al-Maliki will emerge as prime minister. Here is how the political landscape looks:

Timing is everything in politics. Iraqiya missed the chance for a very favorable deal on power sharing and positions.

But al-Maliki understands the importance of a broad coalition and will seek an accommodation with elements of Iraqiya. He will want to insure that he has enough votes in parliament so that the later defection of any single party (especially the Sadrists) would not bring down his government. The challenge he faces is gaining Kurdish support at a price that is not so high it drives away moderate Sunnis.

The Shia remain divided in spite of Iran’s best efforts. The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, Badr and Fadhila all oppose al-Maliki.

This is democracy: painful, agonizingly slow, imperfect and built on compromises, demands, concessions and miscalculations. With Allawi and al-Maliki finishing in a virtual dead heat in a parliamentary system, any faster process was unlikely.

What does this mean for the United States? First, we have to remain engaged. And we are, through the efforts of Vice President Joseph Biden, Under Secretary of State William Burns, who was just in Baghdad, and Ambassador James Jeffrey. We rightly say that we don’t have a preferred candidate but that we do seek an inclusive government. Our ongoing efforts behind the scenes will be essential to make it so. Second, we should not interpret al-Maliki’s emergence as the National Alliance candidate with backing from cleric Moktada al-Sadr as a victory for the Iranians. Al-Maliki is a committed Iraqi nationalist who sent his forces into combat with Iranian-backed Shia militias in 2008 and prevailed. Later that year he concluded two landmark agreements with us that the Iranians strongly opposed.

Like almost all Iraqi political leaders, al-Maliki is committed to a long-term partnership with America. When a new government does emerge, we will need to engage it as a full partner as Baghdad tackles the tough issues that have been on hold for much of the past year in the run-up to elections and their aftermath: the status of Kirkuk, the states’ rights issues of relations among federal, regional and provincial governments, disputed internal boundaries elsewhere in the country, corruption, and the urgent need to improve the quality of governance and basic services. Iraq will also need our ongoing support in confronting security challenges from a determined if weakened al-Qaeda network and Iranian supported terrorist elements.

If we are to be an effective partner, we have to have an adequate presence with adequate resources. I am concerned that the transition to a civilian lead in Iraq may leave us with neither. The administration’s proposal for a long-term civilian presence, especially outside of Baghdad, was minimal. Congress has been reluctant to approve funding for even that, while also cutting in half the request for support for Iraqi security forces.

Much has been accomplished in Iraq over the last few years at great cost for both our nations. Much more remains to be done. Our role and our presence is less visible and far less expensive in blood and treasure than it was during my tenure as ambassador—this is an important measure of progress. But we remain essential to the ongoing success of Iraq’s own efforts.

As Iraq moves toward the formation of a new government and we approach the final year of a deployed U.S. military presence under the terms of the 2008 security agreement, I believe it remains a strong possibility that the Iraqis will request an extension of our military presence. If they do, I hope we will respond positively. No one envisions a combat role for such forces. But they can provide critical assurance to Iraqis against internal and external security threats as Iraqi capabilities develop. For example, Iraq will not have main battle tanks, significant air-defense systems or combat-air capability for several years after 2011. Equally important, a significant U.S. presence is a political assurance to all Iraqis about their future at a time when critical compromises have to be made. We can turn a page in Iraq, but we must not close the book.