The plan was to avoid Afghanistan. US officials cautiously eased themselves into the celebratory waters after Iraq held its national election on March 7th in relative peace. Here the danger wasn’t supporting a premature victor in Hamid Karzai, but stepping on the many fragments that constitute Iraq’s political system. The situation indicated that America would be lucky if a new government formed before August’s end, when all US combat troops are due out of the country.
Expecting a speedy process would only create undue and counterproductive optimism, as Afghanistan frequently demonstrates.
"While it will be a protracted period where there will be a lot of political horse-trading, we believe that they will be able to form a government," said U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill soon after the election, seemingly unconcerned that it would, “likely take months for the various political coalitions seeking power to work out a power-sharing deal.”
Of course US officials are getting anxious. Low intensity violence, while largely unsupported by Iraqis, shows no signs of extinguishing and a post-election power vacuum is the worst case scenario before August. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition attempted to block Ayad Allawi’s secular Iraqi National Movement (INM) through legal maneuvers and Sunni politicians have been sporadically assassinated. Elsewhere the Kurds have suffered air-strikes from Turkey and Iran.
Hill would tell reporters less than two months later, “We are now approaching the two-month period [of waiting for final results] and we are concerned that the process is lagging. We have not gone on to government formation as of yet and we share the concern of those who believe that its time that the politicians got down to business and started forming a government.”
Facing Iraqi criticism that the White House had lost focus on the withdrawal, US Vice President Joe Biden landed in Baghdad on July 3rd to press al-Maliki and Allawi on “forming a government.”
137 days since the election, and neither Biden, President Barack Obama, nor any US official holds the key to keeping the US withdrawal on schedule. After Iraq’s election Obama reiterated that all US combat troops would exit by August, “and by the end of the next year, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq.” He did so because doubts persist that Washington wishes to re-negotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) after a new government forms.
His own Defense Secretary has mused of a residual force.
As vivid evidence of poor US strategy, the fate of US forces may lie in Muqtada al-Sadr’s hands. The Shia cleric exiled himself to Iran to protect himself and speedily advance his ayatollah studies, also vowing not to return to Iraq until US forces withdrew completely. His grievances with the Shia al-Maliki, presumed his only realistic ally, gave the impression that he wished to stall the government’s formation. On the contrary, al-Sadr appears to have been driving up his demand in order to shut America out.
US officials, in addition to foreign oil investors, are believed to be working privately towards excluding the Sadrists from the new government. Not only does al-Sadr fiercely oppose extending the 2011 deadline, expected to be his political asking price, he’s also a leading detractor of oil contracts signed with the outgoing government.
al-Sadr would easily drop the latter condition to keep the former. It was no coincidence that he surfaced in Turkey and Syria last weekend, and he didn’t come for al-Bashir’s 10th anniversary either. al-Sadr met with Allawi during Damascus’s festivities, telling reporters afterward that Allawi was "ready to make concessions to put an end to Iraq's political crisis.” Al-Sadr promised he would do the same, implying a possible alliance against al-Maliki even as he claimed to forget “past differences.”
Thus al-Sadr has checked America by offering his services to Allawi, who also appears ready to use any means to supplant al-Maliki as prime minister. The two could theoretically piece together a government by mid-August.
Naturally al-Maliki and Washington will respond with countermeasures, but ostracizing al-Sadr won’t be easy - he has nowhere else to go if he chooses to return. Territory and religious authority protect him from being militarily ousted like al-Qaeda. He also grows more powerful over time while US influence wanes. al-Sadr is shielded by the basic fact that he’s Iraqi and politically accepted. Any US attempt to bar him would seal his checkmate.
America should focus on getting all of its work done now because there may be no 2012.
It then becomes especially obvious why al-Sadr has made his move now. Beyond his own political and religious agenda, Iran’s hand is visibly forcing America out of Iraq before a potential military strike on its nuclear program. Iraq’s democracy may succeed in the long run, but US officials will have a difficult time portraying victory if they withdraw under the enemy’s terms.
Just one more example of how ill conceived the Iraq war was.