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Iraq: Questions Remain About the U.S. Role

The pivotal role that Vice President Biden is likely to play in U.S.-Iraqi affairs has raised fears that partition may be back on the agenda.

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(Inter Press Service)

The United States has largely complied with a plan, negotiated with Iraq’s government last November, to withdraw its troops from the center of all Iraqi cities by June 30.

But the recent announcement that Vice President Joe Biden will play a lead role in coordinating the Obama administration’s policies in Iraq raises serious questions about whether Washington will be a helpful force as Iraqis continue their push for full independence and functioning self-governance.

The new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Christopher Hill, has scant knowledge of Iraqi history or politics; Biden, by contrast, has for years closely followed Iraqi affairs from his seat on—and then as chair of—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In upcoming intra-administration discussions about Iraq, Biden’s voice is therefore likely to be powerful.

Inside Iraq, Biden is best known—and widely criticized—for co-authoring the 2006 “Biden-Gelb Plan,” which urged that as much real power as possible be devolved from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad to three mini-states that would divide the country along ethnic and religious lines.

On Biden’s latest visit to Baghdad, his first as vice president, he was greeted by at least one sizeable anti-U.S. demonstration, in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. A McClatchy News reporter quoted one demonstrator as saying, “Biden’s visit sent the signal to us that Iraq will be divided. Biden’s background doesn’t allow him to play any role in reconciliation.”

But helping to broker intra-Iraqi reconciliation is exactly what Biden plans to do. He told reporters accompanying him on the trip that one of his goals is “to promote a political settlement on unresolved issues from boundary disputes to the oil law.”

In stating this, Biden seemed to be ignoring the fact that in a fully independent country, such matters are the domain of the national government, rather than any outside power.

Biden also said the way he planned to proceed was to “reestablish contact with each of the leaders among the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shia, and talk through with them what they think has to be accommodated.”

Biden’s references to the ethno-religious groups of “Kurds, Sunnis and Shia” as the main forces in Iraqi politics, and his implication that each of these blocs is—or should be—monolithic revived fears among many Iraqis and Iraq experts that he is pursuing a “softer,” less territorialized version of  the 2006 power-devolution plan.

Reidar Visser, a Norwegian Iraqi affairs expert, has noted that this new variant of the old Biden-Gelb Plan already has a name that is widely used among Iraqis: muhasasa, or “apportionment.”

Other Middle East specialists note that this apportionment scheme looks suspiciously like the divisive system of “confessionalism” that the French bequeathed to Lebanon back in the 1940s, which has caused considerable tension inside Lebanon ever since.

Visser wrote in a recent commentary on his website, historiae.org, “What Biden and Obama don’t seem to understand is that most Iraqis detest this psychological sort of partition just as much as they hated the territorial variant that was advocated in the name of ethno-sectarian federalism in 2007.”

He added that among most Iraqis, “Muhasasa is portrayed as a weakness of Iraqi politics which was introduced by returning Iraqi exiles and L. Paul Bremer in 2003, and which has since festered and grown into a fundamental problem that prevents professionalism and esprit de corps from taking root in the Iraqi state.”

Visser noted that Iraq’s January 2009 provincial elections saw the emergence of many new political forces, weakening the hold of the big sectarian and ethnic parties on local levers of power.

Visser worries that Biden and Obama will act on the basis of a fallacy: that the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia comprise Iraq’s entire political spectrum—as Biden recently demonstrated when he proclaimed he would deal primarily with the leaders of those three blocs.

Visser fears that if this tendency persists, today’s cross-sectarian movements and coalitions might again be crushed, as they were during the 2005 election, and that the political differences within some of the big ethno-sectarian blocs could easily be smothered.

Other Middle East experts said Biden is deaf to Iraqi political sensitivities, pointing to his recent warning that if Iraq’s politicians did not shape up and reach the political agreements he favors, then the United States would have to lessen its involvement in Iraqi affairs.

“Why does he assume that after all the suffering they’ve been through in the past six years, most Iraqis want Americans to stick around?” one expert asked in amazement.

She noted that while in Iraq, Biden apparently talked only to a small section of the political elite, composed mainly of figures who had lived in exile under Saddam Hussein and later rose to prominence only under the patronage of the U.S. occupation.

“Of course, among those people, there is a high proportion who want the U.S. to stick around,” she said. “Many of them fear that once the U.S. leaves completely they will have to leave too. And the past six years have been very profitable for many of those people, with all the contracts and influence they have won.”

Under the terms of last November’s agreement, called a “Status of Forces Agreement” by the Americans and a “Withdrawal Agreement” by the Iraqis, the United States is obligated to withdraw all its troops from the rest of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Most Iraqis welcomed Washington’s near-full implementation of the first withdrawal step on June 30. But they note that U.S. troops remain inside some cities, including Sadr City.

They also note that U.S. military “advisors” are still working with many nominally Iraqi military and paramilitary units, including the widely feared “Iraqi Special Operations Force” (ISOF), which has more than 4,500 US-trained members.

Journalist Shane Bauer recently asked the ISOF’s principal trainer, Brigadier General Simeon Trombitas, how long the U.S. military would remain involved with the ISOF. “We are going to have a working relationship for a while,” Trombitas replied.

Disturbingly, Trombitas made no mention of the end-of-2011 deadline. So it appears likely the U.S. government intends to stay involved in Iraqi affairs, at many different levels, for quite some time to come.

Inter Press Service contributor Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org

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