In Iraq, an opening for successful diplomacy

By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, December 21, 2009

Remember Iraq? For months our attention has been focused on Afghanistan, and you can be sure that the surge will be covered exhaustively as it unfolds in 2010. But next year could be even more pivotal in Iraq.

The country will hold elections in March to determine its political future. Months of parliamentary horse-trading are likely to ensue, which could provoke a return to violence. The United States still has 120,000 troops stationed in Iraq, and all combat forces are scheduled to leave by August, further testing the country's ability to handle its own security. How we draw down in Iraq is just as critical as how we ramp up in Afghanistan: If handled badly, this withdrawal could be a disaster. Handled well, it could be a significant success.

Let's review some history. The surge in Iraq was a success in military terms. It defeated a nasty insurgency, reduced violence substantially and stabilized the country. But the purpose of the surge was, in President George Bush's formulation, to give Iraq's leaders a chance to resolve their major political differences. It was these differences -- particularly between Sunnis and Shiites -- that fueled the civil war in the first place. If they were not resolved, the war might well begin anew or take some other form that would doom Iraq to a breakup or a breakdown.

Iraq's political differences have not been resolved. The most fraught remains the tussle between the Shiites, the Muslim sect that comprises a majority of the population, and the Sunnis, a minority that has traditionally been the country's elite. The simplest indication that issues between these two communities remain unsettled is the fact that only a few of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country from 2003 to 2007 -- the vast majority of whom were Sunni -- have returned. (Firm numbers are hard to come by, but they did not add up to more than a few tens of thousands as of this summer.) This month the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reaffirmed that Iraq remains a dangerous place for members of minority groups and that they should therefore not be forced to return to Iraq.

Sunnis in Iraq remain politically marginalized. And there are growing tensions with the Kurds, who run an autonomous quasi-state in Iraq's north. The Kurds control three of Iraq's 18 provinces but lay claim to three important cities just across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan that have mixed populations. They have also been flouting the central government's authority regarding oil contracts, negotiating 30 deals of their own and blocking the flow of oil out of the Kurdish region. Add to these problems disputes over the drawing of boundaries and election rules.

The basic challenge sounds simple but is extremely difficult to meet. Iraq needs a stable power-sharing deal that keeps all three groups invested in the new country. To make this happen, all three will need to compromise. And the central positive force in all of this can be the United States. In the early years of the occupation, the Bush administration never pushed the Iraqi government enough to force officials to cut deals. This was a historic error because Washington had enormous political leverage with the Iraqis at the time. Even later, the Bush administration shied away from pressing the Iraqis too hard, a common thread in its relations with Afghans and Pakistanis, too.

Yet the United States continues to have considerable influence in Iraq. By all accounts, U.S. diplomacy has been crucial to getting the Kurds to agree to the March elections. President Obama is reported to have called Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and pressed him to withdraw his objections to the election legislation, removing the final obstacle. As American troops draw down, American diplomacy should get aggressive and persistent, pushing the three groups to resolve the basic issues of power sharing.

The costs of the Iraq war have been great and perhaps indefensible. But Iraq could still turn out to be an extraordinary model for the Arab world. Its people are negotiating their differences for the most part peacefully; its politics is becoming more pluralistic and democratic; its press is free; its provinces have autonomy; its focus has shifted to business and wealth creation, not religion and jihad. At a conference in Baghdad last October, the Iraq government focused on its current obsession -- investment. It released a well-produced document, "Open for Business," that details the business opportunities that await capitalists in Iraq. Politics in Iraq feels different from other Arab countries. Friday sermons in Baghdad are mostly about the corruption and competence of Iraq politicians, not the evil designs of America of the perfidy of the Jews. It could be the weakening of the victim complex in which the Arab world has been stuck -- forever seeing itself as acted upon by foreign forces and never in charge of its own destiny.

In 2010, the Obama administration has a window of opportunity to push these positive trends forward. If they stay engaged, are successful, and get lucky, perhaps this is what America will ultimately be remembered for in Iraq.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His e-mail address is

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