Is the U.S. playing a big enough role in Iraq?
One big reason Iraq has not managed to form a new government more than four months after its parliamentary election, says Foreign Minister Hosham Zebari, is heavy and conflicting interventions by its neighbors. “Every country is a player on a different side,” he said Wednesday during a visit to Washington.
Another big reason: the Obama administration has not been enough of a player. “Their role has not been active, to be honest with you,” he told a group of Washington Post editors and reporters.
Administration officials will dispute this assessment. Even as a drawdown of U.S. troops proceeds this summer, senior administration officials have been trying to nudge the four large political blocs that emerged from the March 7 voting to strike a deal on a government. Vice President Biden visited Baghdad over the July 4th weekend; ambassador Christopher Hill and military commander Gen. Raymond Odierno have been making the rounds.
But Zebari says the U.S. involvement has not been sufficient -- especially in view of the far more hands-on approach of countries in the region. “They could do more,” he said. “To say this is a problem for Iraqis, you deal with it, is fine -- but after more than four months we are not making progress. There is an impasse.”
Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf emirates, Syria and Jordan are all backing favorites in Iraq’s political horsetrading. But Zebari said Iran and Turkey have emerged as the biggest players -- and as rivals inside Iraq. Turkey’s government is backing the Sunni parties and their leader, Iyad Allawi, who emerged with a tiny plurality of seats in the vote. Iran is pushing the two Shiite blocs, including that of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to settle on a common candidate for prime minister in order to ensure the next government will be Shiite-dominated.
Both Iran and Turkey are pushing for regional leadership, and the outcome in Iraq could be crucial to their ambitions. “They believe that the United States is withdrawing from Iraq, and that there will be a vacuum,” Zebari said. “Both of them are working hard to fill that vacuum.” He’d like the United States to remain involved to counter such power-grabs.
Despite this summer’s withdrawals, American forces will retain plenty of leverage in Iraq. Some 50,000 troops will remain -- officially in a non-combat role -- until the end of 2011. The administration says it fully intends to stay engaged, in part through a strategic partnership agreement that the Bush administration negotiated with Maliki.
But retaining U.S. influence, and preventing Iraq’s destabilization, may require a stepped-up effort by Washington in the next few weeks. The month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins Aug. 11; if Iraq does not have a government by then, the political and security situation could start to unravel. Though it can’t impose a solution, the United States retains the power of convocation. It can call all the main players together, perhaps in cooperation with UN mediators.
The outcome that would most benefit the U.S. as well as Iraq is fairly clear: a unity coalition that includes the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties and balances their interests -- as well as those of their regional backers.
We asked Zebari whether he thought the administration understood the need to step up its efforts. “That’s a very good question,” he answered with a grin. “I think they do feel it’s a pressing problem. But they don’t admit it.”
| July 14, 2010; 2:12 PM ET
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