U.S. Plan For Troop Exit Hinges On Iraq Elections

Iraqi supporters of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Al-Iraqiya alliance in Kirkuk i i

hide captionIraqi supporters of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Al-Iraqiya secular alliance campaign last week in the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk, about 160 miles north of Baghdad.

Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi supporters of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Al-Iraqiya alliance in Kirkuk

Iraqi supporters of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Al-Iraqiya secular alliance campaign last week in the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk, about 160 miles north of Baghdad.

Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images

The national parliamentary elections Sunday in Iraq will not only decide who will run the country. The outcome could also affect the U.S. role in Iraq in the months ahead.

There have been several elections in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, each of them important in their own right. But this parliamentary vote comes at a particularly critical time, as the U.S. begins its phased exit of about 100,000 American forces from the country.

"I think what you're going to see this year, for good or for ill, is the emergence of a post-occupation Iraq," says Thomas Ricks, a former Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post and now senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Ricks says he is worried about the outcome in this major test of Iraq's nascent democracy. The elections will provide "outlines of what it's going to be like after the Americans leave," he says.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the elections also will determine whether the current U.S. goals for Iraq will be met. Those aims have been scaled back dramatically since the Bush administration ordered the 2003 invasion.

Among the goals to be met: whether the U.S. has succeeded in leaving behind a reasonably stable, functioning country, Ottaway says. The answer "is going to be determined by what happens in the weeks and months following the elections," she says.

Ottaway says it is unlikely the elections will produce a clear winner, which could mean protracted rounds of negotiations and jockeying among the political parties.

That's what happened after the last parliamentary election in 2006. Sectarian tensions were already beginning to peak then, and within a year Iraq devolved into civil war.

Robert Malley, Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group, says a similar situation this time could have an impact on President Obama's decision to start drawing down U.S. troops from Iraq in late spring.

"If you got back to a situation of chaos and uncontrolled violence in Iraq, would that lead the administration to say we've done our best, it's now up to the Iraqis, we're leaving?" Malley says. Or, if violence results it could also convince the administration that U.S. forces need to stay longer and act more forcefully, he says.

The Obama administration has pledged to withdraw most U.S. combat troops by the end of August and have the rest of American troops out by the end of next year.

Ricks says Obama has already had to abandon one of the major promises he made during his campaign for the presidency — to remove a brigade a month from the day he took office. Instead, he has maintained troop levels close to what they were under the Bush administration.

If violence spins out of control following the elections Sunday, Obama may once again rethink the U.S. military position in Iraq. Ricks says there is a split inside the U.S. government about the potential American response.

"Military officials [are] thinking it's a good idea to keep troops in Iraq for many more years. And civilian officials, especially political people, [are] saying no, this president was elected to get us out of Iraq and that's what we want to do," Ricks says.

If Obama decides to slow down the troop withdrawal or keep troops in Iraq beyond the end of 2011, he would have to renegotiate a status of forces agreement with the newly formed Iraqi government after the elections. Analysts say those negotiations would have to be done quietly and behind the scenes.

Ottaway says it is in the U.S.'s interests to stay involved in Iraq, in part, to counter the influence of neighbor Iran.

A new Iraqi government is likely to oppose — at least in public — a continuing U.S. military presence, Ottaway says, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.

"I can not envisage any government that has a likelihood of being formed in Iraq after the election that will totally turn against the United States. They know the U.S. is too important a player in the region," Ottaway says. "And they will maintain decent relations with the United States."

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