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Al-Sadr’s exhortation is all the more relevant, as the American embassy in Baghdad – already the largest US diplomatic mission in the world — is scheduled to double to 16,000 employees by January 2012. Absent a US military presence, their protection will be the responsibility of a combination of private contractors and inexperienced Iraqi security forces.
However, if Maliki is concerned about the ongoing turmoil and the potential negative effects it may have on his nation’s future, he certainly doesn’t seem too affected. As he has boastfully said, “Our country is now the most stable and secure in the region,” noting that “there are downsides, but everything is put on the right track.”
Although this may be a matter for debate, what isn’t in question is who will most benefit if things do go south in Iraq. Just as it has taken advantage of regional uprisings throughout 2011 to destabilize its Sunni Arab rivals, Iran is already well on its way to take advantage of any Iraqi security and political instability.
Despite the conflagration of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and Iranian efforts to incite horrific sectarian violence in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, Iran’s ties to Iraq have actually grown increasingly closer as the US presence diminishes. To wit, through a series of economic agreements, Iran is now Iraq’s largest trading partner. Iran has also created politically influential ties with Baghdad’s government through Shiite proxies such as al-Sadr and the Iraqi Shiite coalition.
For Iran, a weakened and compliant Baghdad government would allow it to use Iraq as a platform for widespread Iranian regional influence. In fact Iran’s efforts on this front have produced some early successes. For example, through Iranian encouragement, Iraq has forcefully made attempts to evict and send into exile the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group based in northwestern Iraq and one the Islamists most fear. Moreover, Iraq has energetically taken up the Iranian policy stance against the Sunni Arab crackdown on Shiite uprisings in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.
Some are very concerned with Iran’s role in this drama. As Iraqi political advisor Wrya Saeed Rwandzi warned, “Iran is openly fighting the secular democratic forces in the entire region. They are more dangerous than al-Qaida.” In fact, he went on to say, “Obama is doing nothing. The U.S. has no clear policy, and is sending contradictory messages.”
That viewpoint, of course, rings distressingly true, as Obama has seemed — at best — indifferent to America’s strategic role in Iraq and — at worst — dangerously injurious. Yet, having campaigned on a pledge in 2008 to end the entire American presence there and now facing re-election in 2012, Obama looks increasingly likely to cut ties altogether.
But this is not a fait accompli, as was perhaps indicated by comments made by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates shortly after he returned from a visit to Baghdad. Gates said the offer for the United States to remain in Iraq was still on the table: “My basic message to them is [for us to] just be present in some areas where they still need help…But they have to ask, and time is running out in Washington.”
Unfortunately, as events are continuing to prove, time may be also running out on the future hopes for Iraq’s nascent democracy as well.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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