America Searches for Means of Influence in Iraq
Hadi Mizban/Associated PressAn Iraqi soldier in central Baghdad on Sunday. With most American troops now outside the cities, Iraqis are making decisions American commanders once made.
Published: July 5, 2009
BAGHDAD — Behind the high walls of the American Embassy here, diplomats are casting about to find a new formula to influence politics in Iraq.
The Caucus: Vice President Says His Trip Proves Iraq Remains Priority (July 5, 2009) With most troops now on large bases outside the cities, America’s day-to-day involvement in Iraqi life has vanished. The decisions, big and small, that American commanders made are now largely being made by Iraqis; American soldiers no longer have daily contact with tribal sheiks, mayors, insurgents and shopkeepers — a change welcomed by the majority of Iraqis.
Although President Obama has made it clear that his strategic priority is the war in Afghanistan, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in Baghdad last week to emphasize that America still cared about Iraq.
Many Iraqis say that since the Obama administration took office, America’s policy has seemed unfocused and distant. In interviews, more than a dozen Iraqi policy makers felt Iraq had been displaced by concerns about Afghanistan and Pakistan and the administration had not given much thought to Iraq beyond its resolve to get the troops out.
Contributing to their unease was a sense of drift as Iraq lingered without an ambassador between the departure of Ryan C. Crocker and the arrival of his successor, Christopher R. Hill.
Mr. Biden’s visit has heartened Iraq’s political elite somewhat, reassuring them that they had not been abandoned, though the question remains whether Mr. Biden can make a difference.
Indeed, the troubles he is hoping to solve are those that stymied three previous ambassadors and President George W. Bush: political reconciliation between different ethnic and sectarian groups; a hydrocarbon law that will provide revenue to all of Iraq; and, tied to both knotty problems, a resolution of the disputed border between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq.
“This is truly mission unaccomplished in the larger scheme of things,” said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, a Kurd.
“Iraq may have been stabilized, Al Qaeda might have trouble regrouping, we may not need General Odierno day in and day out doing operations,” he said, referring to the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno. “All that may be true, but the big battle over Iraq and stability and security has yet to be won fundamentally because of the politics of Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Arab Sunni. These are fundamental issues of power, resources and territory.”
Ayad al-Sammaraie, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, said Iraqis welcomed American involvement but looked forward to more details. The Americans said “they would concentrate on supporting institutions, not supporting individuals,” he said. “O.K., that’s nice, but how are you going to do that? What institutions are they going to support and how?”
As he left Iraq, Mr. Biden told a New York Times reporter that he had gotten the message from Iraqi officials who feared that Iraq was no longer a high priority for Mr. Obama. Mr. Biden said he was surprised to hear that, and tried to assuage those concerns. He quoted one official, whom he did not name, as telling him, “We were concerned we were moved to the bottom shelf.” He added, “I said, ‘Well, you’re not.’ ”
As they deal with Iraqi politics, the Americans must find a new tone. They have a reputation for being heavy-handed, for telling Iraqis what to do rather than asking what they want — a legacy of the period when Americans were in charge as an occupying force. Now that Iraq is in most respects a sovereign country, that approach only generates hostility.
Although the Americans helped most leading Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, come to power — and stay there — they can no longer expect the Iraqis to acknowledge the help, because being close to the Americans risks alienating average Iraqis.
Abdul Karim Abbas, who runs a wholesale soda shop in a mixed Sunni and Shiite working-class neighborhood, said the Americans were hindered because their very presence made people suspicious. “It will complicate things, since there are many sides who don’t want the Americans to interfere,” he said.
“The Sunnis accuse the Shia and the Kurdish of working with them. There is no trust for the Americans because they made us fight each other,” he said repeating the argument often heard on the streets that it was Americans who brought sectarian strife to Iraq and that previously, the sects had lived together happily.
Regardless of who brought sectarianism, national parliamentary elections set for January already look likely to be run along sectarian lines. Shiite parties are leaning toward forming a united coalition with only nominal Sunni support. That could push Sunnis to run together in order to maximize the number of seats they get — perpetuating a Lebanese style of politics, with ministries and other posts divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an Islamist party founded in Iran, is one of several parties championing the return to a single Shiite coalition. It lost seats in the provincial elections and is looking for a way to regain ground. Its members say that many people who ran as individuals or as members of small parties never gained even a single seat; it would have been better if they had run under one umbrella. “If we have bigger blocs, that will result in fewer lost votes,” said Amar al-Hakim, the son of the party’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and his likely successor.
In the north of Iraq, competition over control of Kirkuk Province and in that way control of some of Iraq’s richest oil fields is in a tense stalemate, with neither the Kurds, nor Sunni Arabs nor Turkmens willing to give an inch.
“Iraq is not going to stay together if there is no oil law binding the country together through the revenue stream; that’s 95 percent of the Iraqi budget, you can’t just let that slide,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The Obama administration understands that very well. The analysis is there; it’s been the oomph that’s lacking.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.
Sign in to RecommendMore Articles in World » A version of this article appeared in print on July 6, 2009, on page A4 of the New York edition.