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An Iraqi Holiday
There's reason for celebration and also for worry. Neither seems to be on the White House's agenda.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

IRAQIS BOISTEROUSLY celebrated a new national holiday -- National Sovereignty Day -- to mark the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from their cities yesterday. Though the observance was orchestrated by the government of Nouri al-Maliki for its own political purposes, there was, in fact, something real to toast. Two and a half years ago, when fresh American forces deployed across Baghdad, Iraq appeared to be spiraling toward sectarian war and possibly splitting into pieces. Today it is as peaceful and prosperous as it has been in decades, and far freer; violence is down 90 percent from its peak and most of the country's political forces are focused on competing in upcoming democratic elections rather than fighting in the streets.

This extraordinary change represents a major achievement for the United States and its military forces, as well as for Iraq; that there have been no celebrations here is a reflection of the current administration's continuing ambivalence toward a "surge" campaign and a war that President Obama opposed. We'll readily forgive this absence of hosannas: "Mission accomplished" has been declared too many times, prematurely, in Iraq. What's more troubling are the indications that the administration is not devoting sufficient attention to the daunting political, military and diplomatic challenges that remain -- and to the danger that everything that has been accomplished in the past several years could come undone.

The threats to Iraq begin with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, which last week killed more than 200 people in high-profile bombings. U.S. military commanders say Iran continues to supply weapons to Shiite militias; al-Qaeda recruits continue to pass through Syria. An even bigger worry is northern Iraq, where Kurds and Arabs are locked in a tense standoff over control of oil-rich lands and the city of Kirkuk -- and where more than 30 people were killed in a bombing yesterday.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. al-Maliki tend to play down these concerns -- but then, both have political motives to do so. Mr. Obama wants to stick to the withdrawal timetable that he outlined several months ago and that was an early foundation of his presidential campaign. Mr. al-Maliki wants to appear, ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections, as a strong leader and champion of Iraqi nationalism. Both are consequently inclined to minimize the continuing problems of terrorism and political discord and to take risks in pressing forward with the U.S. drawdown.

Such risks could be lessened by aggressive U.S. efforts to help Iraqis reach political accords in Kirkuk and elsewhere, to minimize meddling by Iran and Syria, and to promote arrangements for the elections that will discourage sectarianism. Mr. al-Maliki ought to be reaching out to Sunni leaders and making sure that those who fought against al-Qaeda are given the jobs they were promised. But neither government is following through. The Obama administration is lavishing diplomatic attention and resources on the Israeli-Arab peace process, where there is scant chance of an early breakthrough, while leaving Iraq to a new ambassador with no Middle East experience. If there are to be more days to celebrate in Iraq, this policy of quiet neglect must end.

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