In the euphoria of Libyan dictator-president Muammar Gaddafi being captured and killed by Libyan rebel forces on October 20, media houses around the world overlooked or underplayed a development in the Middle East. At a relatively toned down press briefing from the White House, the following day, US President Barack Obama announced that by December 31 all US troops would leave Iraq. Thus, by bringing to an end the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was strongly opposed by many of US’ allies including France and Germany, Obama has kept one of his poll promises. This is a decision that future analyst will observe as an important move that changed the way the world does politics because a pullout by US from Iraq has more than one implication and impact. So why did such a monumental announcement by Obama go under the radar of sorts? While the move was discussed widely in the United States, internationally the response it received was lukewarm. Perhaps it was intended to be so.
Politics of pullout
Obama’s announcement was criticised by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney as a sign of weakness and an open invitation to Iraq’s neighbour Iran to fill in the vacuum. Romney while making these allegations is either exposing his political naivety for it was President Bush who signed the withdrawal in 2008, or it is political opportunism, a craft which needs a lot of honing.
For Obama it is a win-win deal in many ways. Firstly, as the 2012 presidential race heats up, the announcement is a brownie point for Obama. As of November 4, 49 per cent of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job; that’s a two per cent rise from the previous month. The spree of assassinations --- Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Muammar Gaddafi --- has assuaged the US public that the billions they have been spending has seen some fruition.
Secondly, the war on terror, waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, has bled the US in many ways – financially, perception-wise and human casualty. Financially, the wars have cost the US close to $2.5 trillion and this sum is entirely --- yes entirely --- on money borrowed. With no tax reforms and the war spending increasing US’ debt has shot through the roof. Perception-wise the US has lost footing within and outside the country. The number of people in the US who think that the wars are of a “choice” and not a “necessity”, to use Obama’s phrase to describe the Iraq and Afghanistan operations respectively, are on the rise. Americans also feel that these operations in the Middle East and other countries have only earned them the hatred of others. A good example would be Pakistan, which is a war ally. Despite Washington pouring in billions into the country, US is detested by the people and government of Pakistan. Recent reports from Iraq indicate that even groups that initially welcomed the US forces are happy to see the pullout. The human casualty, in the form of wounded --- physically and mentally – war veterans, is an expenditure that is going to grow on the US economy as years pass by. Economists fear that this will have a telling effect on the economy in the years ahead.
Thirdly, the US, while in theory actually pulls out, actually does not. While on the surface there is a pullout the US has worked out mechanisms through which it will have a sizable presence in the Iraq. Through the various embassies in Iraq US will be employing close to 20,000 personnel. This soldier pullout paves the way for the comeback of the ‘notorious’ contractors. Ted Wright, president of Blackwater (responsible for the Nisour Square Massacre in 2007) has expressed interest to do business in Iraq again. The US has signed arms deal with Iraq worth more than $10 billion. In the lieu of training and maintenance US personnel will be stationed in Iraq soil. Given all this, it is clear that the US has made sure that it maintains its presence in the country. After all Iraq is a major oil producing country and the revenue trade with Iraq can generate through development work is too lucrative for any country to forgo.
Middle East equation
To understand the political fluctuations and future developments in the Middle East it is essential to first understand the two predominant sects in Islam --- Sunni and Shia. Sunnis form roughly 85 per cent of the Muslims world over. The Middle East is predominantly Sunni but Iraq and Iran have Shias as the majority with a presence in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Saddam Hussein was heading a Sunni minority government in a Shia majority Iraq. He suppressed Shia and Kurd movements and Tehran was his <bete noire>. Other countries in the region thought of him as a good counterweight to an Iran that was getting assertive and threatening after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The United States, by invading Iraq, ousting and hanging Saddam did in a year what Iran was trying to achieve for decades. Thus Washington was levelling Iraq as a playing field for Tehran.
For all the tall talk done by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “Iran should not miscalculate about our (US) commitment to Iraqis” analyst agree that Iran’s influence over Iraq cannot be stopped, and definitely not by any of the tactics the US has used till date.
While invading Iraq former President George Bush had planned to reform the country and turn it into the first true democratic country in the region with the hope that it would serve as a beacon to other countries to move towards democracy. However, the steps taken by the US to usher in this change went wrong from the beginning. America’s hand-picked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government could get the required numbers last year only because it got the backing of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a Shia with active backing from Tehran. Thus the democracy that the Washington propped up in Baghdad was on the stilts lent by Tehran.
However, there is a silver-lining as Iraqis, who have longed for democracy and have witnessed the developments in the neighbouring countries, have protested against the stand Maliki has taken on the uprising in Syria. Maliki has not criticised the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Iran.
Of late there has been a call for attacking Iran for the threat it poses because of the nuclear weapons it has in its possession. A rattled Israel, which has not had good relations with Iran, is in the forefront with this call for attack. While it is a matter of concern that Tehran has a clandestine nuclear programme going on in the stealth, it is also a known fact, something akin to a public secret known to all. Russia has advised caution in approaching Iran.
It is understandable that Israel is worried that with US pulling out of Iraq, Iran will have a free run over there. Add to this the Arab Spring which is bringing traditional US favourites down and giving groups that are close to Tehran a chance to run these countries; not to mention the Gilad Shalit deal which has given the Hamas a boost. Thus a US pullout from Iraq can be said to be the trigger for this panic attack.