Commentary

Who Will Decide When We Leave Iraq?

The devastating attack on the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra and the reprisals against Sunni mosques and imams have unearthed the religious and ethnic tensions that have been lurking just beneath the surface in Iraq. But sectarianism also exists within Iraqi electoral politics, and it may soon be revealed by the Iraqi government’s approach to the U.S. military presence there.

Some Iraq-watchers were worried when Iraqi Shiite lawmakers nominated Ibrahim al-Jaafari to continue serving as Iraq’s prime minister. Jaafari’s narrow victory confirmed the growing political strength of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who has led two violent uprisings against the United States. Sadr’s actual control over the Shiite bloc in the Iraqi parliament is disputed, and some still hold out hope that a more secular government can be cobbled together by excluding Sadr’s supporters. But one thing is certain: Sadr wants U.S. troops out of Iraq.

President Bush declared in his State of the Union address that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq would be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, DC. But what about Iraqi politicians? Assuming that the Sadr faction in the Iraqi parliament holds together, could the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq be dictated by elected officials in Iraq?

In the past, members of the Bush administration have said that the U.S. military would leave if asked to do so by the Iraqi government. Over a year ago, just before the first nationwide elections in Iraq, President Bush said that the United States would honor a request by the Iraqi government to remove U.S. troops from the country. While he stressed that he did not believe the new government would do such a thing, the president replied, Yes, absolutely. This is a sovereign government they’re on their feet.

Iraqis aren’t buying it. A poll taken last month by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that more than three out of every four Iraqis (76 percent) believe the United States would ignore a demand by the new Iraqi government to withdraw all U.S. forces out of Iraq within six months.

It seems unlikely that the Iraqi government will request such an abrupt departure. While an overwhelming 70 percent of Iraqis favor the establishment of a timeline for the removal of U.S. forces, only half of those would like to see all forces out in six months. The remainder favors a gradual withdrawal over a two-year period. On the other hand, a mere 29 percent support the Bush administration’s long-standing position that American forces should only be withdrawn as the security situation improves in Iraq.

Given such strong public support within Iraq for a withdrawal timeline, and given that a leading Shiite bloc in the Parliament favors a prompt withdrawal, it is logical to suppose that the Iraqi government might ask U.S. forces to leave. Should it choose to simply ignore such a demand, the Bush administration risks undermining the nascent democracy in Iraq.

Importantly, Iraqi doubts about America’s intentions are contributing directly to some of the most urgent security challenges facing our men and women in uniform today. In the summer of 2004, Georgetown University’s David Edelstein surveyed the history of military occupations since the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Writing in the journal International Security, Edelstein concluded that Occupation is likely to generate less opposition when the occupying power makes a credible guarantee that it will withdraw and return control to an indigenous government in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, 80 percent of Iraqis, according to the PIPA poll, believe that the United States intends to maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq.

Of course, military decisions should not be dictated solely by political considerations. If an enormous military presence inside of Iraq were necessary to protect Americans from terrorism, then we might have to override the wishes of Iraqi elected officials.

But the visible U.S. presence in Iraq is not needed in order to hunt down terrorists in Iraq, and it has obviously failed to resolve sectarian tensions there. Some cynical manipulators, such as Sadr and the notorious terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have even used widespread resentment toward the occupation to stir up religious and ethnic divisions within the country.

The United States will continue to hunt down terrorists in Iraq, even after the occupation ends, in the same way that we do it everywhere else in the world: by deploying small units of military personnel at times and in places of our choosing, usually in concert with the host nation’s forces.

The Bush administration should stop saying that a U.S. military withdrawal would represent a victory for the terrorists, and should focus instead on ways to convince the Iraqi people that they will soon be responsible for their own security.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.