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Iraq: "Responsible" Withdrawal
Iraq votes twice in 2009, with provincial elections in January and national elections slated for the end of the year. And the outcome of those votes could have a major impact on the security conditions on the ground in Iraq, which will affect the calculation of Obama's plan to withdraw "responsibly" from Iraq within 16 months.
Obama's victory certainly helps the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, because al-Maliki is looking to base his political appeal on being the man who got the U.S. out of Iraq (even though he still depends on its military presence). Dealing with a U.S. President committed to the same goal (rather than with President Bush, who had openly advocated a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq) will certainly help a Prime Minister under pressure from both his own electorate and his influential neighbor, Iran, to refrain from authorizing an extended U.S. presence. Neutralizing the presence of the Americans as an election issue will help al-Maliki fend off the challenge of rival Shi'ite parties.
Still, the organizing principle of Iraqi politics remains ethnicity and sect, with all of the main players being those connected with some form of politically aligned military muscle and the prize being control over power and resources. As a result, elections tend to exacerbate rather than resolve tensions, and next year's races will likely see sharp political (and occasionally even military) battles between rival Shi'ite parties in the south and Baghdad; between Sunni and Shi'ite blocs in some parts north of Baghdad, such as Diyala province, as well as between the government (including the Sunni parties that have participated in it, until now) and the U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening movement of former insurgents; and between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
The security gains from the U.S. "surge" have not translated into political reconciliation among Iraq's contending factions, and next year's elections could well see a deterioration of security conditions. And while deployment of U.S. forces may be a way of helping contain any upsurge of political violence, the expectation of a U.S. withdrawal may prompt some of Iraq's contending factions to step up their own attacks on U.S. forces in order claim an American withdrawal as a victory for their armed formations. Whatever their outcome, it remains questionable whether Iraq's 2009 election season will help foster security conditions for the U.S. withdrawal favored by Obama.