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Obama's Iraqi Gambit

By Dan Froomkin
1:43 PM ET, 04/ 7/2009


Obama greets military personnel at Camp Victory. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama said in an interview two weeks ago, "if you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem, I don't think anybody would have believed it."

But his unannounced visit to Baghdad today calls attention to how unfinished and unsettled the situation in Iraq remains, even as Obama proceeds with his plans to withdraw most of the 142,000 U.S. forces there in the next 17 months.

As I wrote in late February, Obama may have made a big mistake when he linked his withdrawal plan to former president George W. Bush's quite possibly unattainable goal: In Obama's words, "an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."

Now he risks having the country literally and figuratively blow up in his face.

"You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country," Obama told cheering troops at Camp Victory, the main American military base in Baghdad. "That is an extraordinary achievement."

He continued: "It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty."

But signs are growing that the dramatic improvements in security in Iraq have not necessarily translated into long-term political stability. At some point in the future, the ethnic tensions that exploded into civil war after Saddam Hussein's overthrow may well explode again.

Foreign Policy military blogger Tom Ricks recently referred to what's going on in Iraq as "the unraveling".

Indeed, consider that, as Sudarsan Raghavan and Anthony Shadid wrote in The Washington Post last Monday: "A new and potentially worrisome fight for power and control has broken out in Baghdad as the United States prepares to pull combat troops out of Iraq next year....

"The struggle...pits two vital American allies against each other...

"Both the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni fighters, known as the Awakening, are cornerstones in the American strategy to bring stability. The Awakening, in particular, is widely viewed as a key reason violence has dramatically dropped across Iraq."

Alissa J. Rubin wrote last week in the New York Times: "As the American military prepares to withdraw from Iraqi cities, Iraqi and American security officials say that jihadi and Baath militants are rejoining the fight in areas that are largely quiet now, regrouping as a smaller but still lethal insurgency.

"There is much debate as to whether any new insurgency, at a time of relative calm in most of Iraq, could ever produce the same levels of violence as existed at the height of the fighting here. A recent series of attacks, however, like bubbles that indicate fish beneath still water, suggest the potential danger, all the more perilous now because the American troops who helped to pacify Iraq are leaving."

Deborah Haynes wrote for the Times of London over the weekend: "A mutiny in the ranks of a key Iraqi militia credited with helping US forces to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq is threatening to plunge the country back into bloody sectarian violence.

"The rebellion by some members of the Awakening Councils, a Sunni Arab paramilitary force of more than 90,000 men, could unravel the improvements in security since 2007. If left unchecked it threatens to push the country back to the brink of civil war, pitting Sunnis against the Shias."

Steven Lee Myers writes in today's New York Times: "A series of six car bombings in and near Baghdad killed at least 33 people and wounded scores on Monday, according to witnesses and the police, in a convulsion of violence that underscored the heightened tensions between Sunni fighters and Iraq's government....

"A prominent Shiite legislator, Abbas al-Bayati, suggested a link between the violence and members of the Sunni Awakening movement, made up of former insurgents who joined with American and Iraqi forces beginning in 2006. A simmering dispute over pay for the Awakening members and the arrest of an Awakening leader last month in the Fadhil neighborhood of Baghdad led to clashes between the group and Iraqi forces. He also blamed remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party for the violence."

Martin Chulov writes in today's Guardian: "The wave of attacks - the largest number of bombs in one day in almost two years - killed 34 people and wounded close to 120. The city was rocked by blasts throughout the morning, within two days of the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, which had been seen by defence officials as a potential landmark date for Sunni-linked militants and loyalists to executed president Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni.

"Yesterday's attacks follow a series of arrests of ranking members of the militias - known as Awakening Councils - whom government officials branded as outlaws. The arrests led to pitched street battles and have stirred anger among the groups, with some officials claiming they will soon be discarded despite the key role they played against al-Qaida in 2007. A spokesman for Iraq's interior ministry said Iraqi officials had an open mind about the cause of yesterday's violence but feared it might be the start of a renewed push."

Intelligence analyst John McCreary recently suggested: "The arrangement under which the US paid Sunni fighters to stop fighting US forces is breaking down because the Iran-backed al Maliki government has only hired 5,000 Sunni fighters from the 100,000 on the US payroll at 300 per fighter per month. This is a pre-cursor of the second round of the Sunni-Shia civil war to follow."

The good news for Obama about Iraq is primarily at home. As Alexander Mooney writes for CNN, "a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Americans overwhelmingly support the president's plan to remove the majority of U.S. troops from the country by August of next year.

"Just under 70 percent of Americans approve of Obama's plan to remove most troops in Iraq by next August while keeping 35,000-50,000 troops there past that date. Thirty percent of Americans oppose that plan."

But what happens if things get bloody again?

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