In the last four months almost 400 people were killed in Baghdad as a result of terrorist bombings. The three major attacks were not only methodologically similar, but they all focused on political targets, mainly governmental institutions under Iraqi leadership. These attacks remind us that the Iraqi state is still a work in progress for the international community and for the Iraqi authorities. It also highlights the necessity of allotting more attention to the country by the Obama Administration.
As John Alterman wrote previously in The Majalla, the war in Iraq has disappeared from American newspapers and televisions in the last year. Iraq has also disappeared from the Administration agenda and presidential speeches. One may say that deterioration of “AfPak” is reason enough to explain that. However, finishing the job in Iraq with coherence, strength and ambition should be the goal of the Obama administration. In other words, the American withdrawal must guarantee a political commitment to Iraq and the problems it might face in the future – as the current challenges are unlikely to disappear in the moment of military retreat and will probably increase while Iraqi authorities keep the political and economic process in their hands. Instead, the Obama administration should be prepared to help Iraq in three main areas: in the security, economic and strategic fields.
Three major events have shaped the relationship between Americans and Iraqis. The first was the Strategic Framework Agreement, aimed to regulate international cooperation, and help to improve education, the economy, and the judicial system. The second was the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which established the US military’s withdrawal timetable from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and the commitment to leave Iraq by 31 December 2011. Both agreements were approved by the Iraqi Parliament in November 2008, but SOFA calendar may change after the Iraqi referendum which will be held together with the parliamentary elections in March 2010.
The Pentagon and the State Department under the Obama administration have demonstrated a commitment to respect these important steps. Obama reinforced this view during his major speech on Iraq, Responsibly Ending the War in Iraq, at North Carolina in February 2009. This speech constitutes the third major development affecting the Iraqi-American relationship. In his speech, Obama was clear in one point: “Iraq is not yet secure … violence will continue to be part of life in Iraq”. He was right.
But the question is how to reduce this prediction to a minimum level without jeopardizing the goals already achieved? The answer will be delivered by the electoral results, which will determine the political stability of the country. The answer will also be affected by the consequent departure timetable of the US military forces, which may be postponed after the elections. In other words, the Obama administration must be focused on the preparation of trustful Iraqi security and armed forces while working on the troop withdrawal.
Additionally, while the US administration is refocusing most efforts on the “AfPak” front, Obama should not consider the maintenance of the Iraqi economic environment as of secondary importance. The current Iraqi government has developed a reputation for being business-friendly, outlining a strategy for expanding the country’s private sector and attracting international investors. Foreign investment has increased more than 200% over the last year. These investments are mainly concentrated on oil and gas deals, real estate and mixed investments projects which have also improved the confidence among international companies who view Iraq as a viable investment location.
As Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, said at the Invest Iraq 2009 Conference, held in London in April, “jobs and services are the best counter-insurgency strategy for economic reconstruction”. Nowadays, Iraq’s public sector provides 43% of the country’s jobs and nearly 60% of a full-time employment, figures that should motivate the government to go in expanding the country’s private sector, certainly with the help of foreign direct investments.
Iraq must also be encouraged to reduce its dependence on oil revenues, which makes up more than 60% of its GDP and 19% of its budget revenues. One of the important lessons from the current global financial crisis is the need to boost oil production and to diversify the economy. According to the IMF, the Iraqi economy will continue to increase for the next five years more than 7% per year. In other words, with improved security, fair distribution of natural resources, and a business-friendly administration, Iraq may see much-needed investment. But even this will depend on the Obama administration’s will to maintain a commitment to these goals. A successful election process in March 2010 and the conclusion of the U.S. troop withdrawal may help to transform the international perception of Iraq into one of an emerging market.
What the United States could not do unilaterally, it must try to do with others, including neighboring countries, European allies, and the United Nations. Although President Obama did not choose this war, nor did European countries approve the intervention, the case remains that the collapse of Iraq would be catastrophic to the region – and to Europe. A plan to draw down U.S. forces would therefore contribute to the success of a larger diplomatic strategy, prompting Middle East states, European governments, and the UN to be more constructive and proactive in working to salvage stability in the Persian Gulf.
The priority of the U.S. administration and its allies should be to design a comprehensive political strategy which outlines the distribution of resources within Iraq, improves the recruitment of Sunnis to the army and security forces, and stabilizes the country both politically and economically. This course is risky but it is still better than a short-term approach divorced from any larger political vision for Iraq and the Middle East.
Bernardo Pires de Lima- Researcher, Portuguese Institute of International Relations