A rocky road ahead for U.S.-Iraqi relations, says former ambassador

The Takeaway

Just a few short weeks ago, the last U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraq.

It was a defining moment for 2011. After nearly nine years, $1 trillion and countless lives lost, Americans and Iraqis, the United States had left Iraq.

At the time, American leaders led by President Barack Obama said that Iraq was on the path to being a representative democracy and a full partner of the global community.

But in the short time since the United States left, the sectarian tension that underlies Iraqi society has been lain bare again.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. diplomat who oversaw the civilian government of Iraq immediately after the invasion, has been fiercely critical of Obama’s decision to pull out the troops because of that sectarian tension. He wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal this week. And though Bremer’s boss, former President George W. Bush reached agreement with Iraqi leaders setting the date for withdrawal, Bremer says for three reasons, Obama should have found a way to keep soldiers in the country.

“It’s clear the Iraqi forces were not ready to the security threats,” he said. “Secondly, the presence of the American forces…was important as a marker of America’s continued interest in Iraq’s continued political development. Thirdly, and probably most importantly of all, the withdrawal represents a signal to the other countries in the region that America is drawing down it’s interest and presence in the Middle East.”

Now that the United States is out of Iraq, however, Bremer said the key will be for the United States to beef up its intelligence gathering capabilities in the country, and continue training the Iraqi military into a more capable force. The United States still has more than 100 soldiers at its embassy in Baghdad to oversee training of Iraqi forces.

“We have to find some way to train them. Whether we can do that in Iraq or in the U.S. or some other place remains to be seen, but it will allow us to continue our political relations, our coordination relations with the Iraqi military and intelligence services.”

Perhaps the largest risk, in the short term, is that Iraq will turn from a unified country into three, semi-independent states.

“Once Iraq comes apart, you not only have a civil war in Iraq, but because of the position of the Kurds in the neighboring countries, you simply have a regional war start all over,” Bremer said. “I think it’s a risk. We have to work hard now to avoid it, but by withdrawing our troops we reduce our credibility.”

And while the United States is selling some $40 billion in military equipment to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Bremer said the unmistakable sign to Iran is that the U.S. is withdrawing forces that it has had positioned on both its borders and becoming less interested in the Middle East.

“I think from the Iranian point of view, and that’s the main concern, those are the messages we’re conveying,” he said.

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