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Prospects for Iraq in 2009

Commentary, 5 January 2009
Middle East and North Africa
At last the prospects for stability in Iraq seem good. With many changes expected in 2009 there is a real opportunity for the Iraqis themselves to seize the initiative and claim back their sense of sovereignty. Of course there are hurdles to clear such as provincial elections, defining the status of Kirkuk and managing sectarianism without the impartial US forces, but the current momentum should carry the Iraqis through.

At last the prospects for stability in Iraq seem good. With many changes expected in 2009 there is a real opportunity for the Iraqis themselves to seize the initiative and claim back their sense of sovereignty. Of course there are hurdles to clear such as provincial elections, defining the status of Kirkuk and managing sectarianism without the impartial US forces, but the current momentum should carry the Iraqis through.

By Alastair Campbell, Director, RUSI Qatar

For at least five years commentators and pundits have been regularly saying that ‘the next six months will be crucial for Iraq’. Indeed, they were often partially right in that Iraq has taken frequent biannual turns for better or worse; but never has a six month period put the country completely on or off course. However, 2009 does usher in changes of real significance, notably the implementation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a new US President and the withdrawal of UK combat forces. There will also be the break up of the international coalition that once numbered over 40 nations and the first elections since 2005, in which Iraqis will vote for their provincial councils.

Recent signs have pointed confidently to the ability of the Iraqis to manage these changes and take full advantage of the opportunities the SOFA bestows. Despite the heated debates and the impatient emotions that the document incited, the final text confers firm deadlines for the withdrawal of US combat troops while allowing an orderly transfer over a measured period. Although the debate will continue for some time between those who believe in sovereignty at all costs and those, like the Prime Minister’s spokesman Ali al Dabbagh, who admit that Iraq will need US military assistance for the next ten years, at least there is now an accepted three year framework within which to plan and decide. Everyone wants US combat troops out; the argument will be over how many stay as advisers or trainers and where they will be based.

President-elect Obama initially promised a more rapid rate of withdrawal, but he was always careful to qualify his statements by acknowledging the need to listen to the advice of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is too shrewd to go against what the uniformed experts propose, especially after the tangible success of General Petraeus in reducing violence and managing campaign expectations. He will be acutely aware of the warnings that such success is ‘fragile and reversible’ and will err on the side of caution. Apart from anything else, the rate of withdrawal will be predicated more on logistical mathematics than policy initiative. Obama will also know how much Iraq still depends on the US for air support and mobility, as only they have the helicopters and transport assets the Iraqi Armed Forces need to deploy their brigades. What the Iraqi government proclaim in public is different from what they plead in private.

Confidence is also reinforced by the development of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Although the police are still some way behind the army in quality and performance, they are less beholden to militia influence and corruption than they were a year ago. The main concern is that the government cannot absorb all those who want to join the ISF, such as those disbanded from the Sahwa movement, and there is scope for the unemployed and disaffected to make mischief. But with Al Qa’ida largely discredited and neutralised there is less chance of a reversion to the sectarian violence that almost brought Iraq to its knees two years ago. There are still areas of instability, notably in the North, but with thirteen provinces now handed back to Iraqi control it will be easier to concentrate efforts in places like Kirkuk, Mosul and Baquba where violence continues.

The main difference between the policies of Bush and Obama is that Obama believes in ‘joint security’. This means treating the region as a whole and recognising the importance of all states, not just the ones the US is allied with. America must not simply focus on its own narrow security issues but ensure wider stability by taking account of all actors and nations affected. Obama has declared his intention for ‘direct and tough’ talks with Iran; he will also seek to engage with Syria. With the prospect of constructive dialogue with countries once tarnished with an ‘evil’ epithet, there is hope of sensible if not dramatic progress in persuading Iraq’s neighbours into a more responsible policy.

Obama has also made it clear that Afghanistan will be his military priority, and that he plans to send more troops there while drawing down in Iraq. This indicates that he will have fewer extra forces to spare should there be a need for reinforcements; but it also signifies a confidence that Iraq is on track and will not need reinforcing.

One of the consequences of reducing troops will be a greater dependence on private security companies (PSC). Few organisations will be happy to work in Iraq in the short term without security, and they will still be reluctant to depend on the Iraqis, whose loyalty in some areas remains suspect. But there also needs to be a more stringent regulation of these companies. The recent Blackwater case has highlighted this imperative; but the balance between international and Iraqi control will have to be found.

In the North of the country there will be several areas of contention. The Kurds are likely to become more assertive in their bid for a greater share of Iraq’s oil wealth, especially if the oil price continues its slide. This could also escalate into internal squabbling between the two main factions, who have suppressed their mutual animosity for several years. The Kurds will also press for US troops to stay longer in their region and might even suggest a permanent base for them. But the main issue that will remain unresolved is the status of Kirkuk and what it means for the rest of the country. Often described as a microcosm of Iraq’s wealth and woes, it stands as a stubborn symbol of what still needs to be done.

In 2009 we can expect:

  • the US to meet its withdrawal deadlines as set out in the SOFA;
  • the UK to meet its intention to withdraw all its combat troops;
  • the Coalition/Multinational Force to disband as such, with some individual nations continuing under the NATO umbrella for training and equipment reasons;
  • the violence to continue to subside despite intermittent atrocities;
  • greater reliance on private security but greater regulation and control of more responsible PSCs;
  • continuing development of the political process with provincial elections not marred by violence;
  • the Kurds to express more independent views and create problems especially among themselves;
  • Kirkuk to remain a sticky and potentially dangerous problem, with no immediate solution over its status.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

See also:

Assessing Britain’s Legacy: The UK Withdrawal from Iraq

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