As Iraq votes, U.S. content to keep its distance

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; A01

As Obama administration officials tried in recent weeks to anticipate what could go wrong in Sunday's elections in Iraq, they realized with some relief that they are largely powerless to control what happens.

In twice-daily meetings leading up to the vote and in a final preelection videoconference Thursday with the U.S. ambassador and military commander on the ground, officials contemplated the possibilities. Violence, intimidation or fraud might limit turnout or mar the legitimacy of the vote. Post-election political jockeying could delay the formation of a government for months and leave a dangerous power vacuum. Iran could create mischief, or worse.

But beneath the last-minute activity in Washington, officials have recognized that the electoral contest and its aftermath are in the hands of the Iraqis. Nearly seven years after U.S.-led troops took over Iraq, the administration appears content with its changing role there.

Committed to halving the contingent of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by summer's end as he escalates a red-hot war in Afghanistan, President Obama has set a high bar for intervening -- or even acknowledging serious concern about the future.

In a briefing at the White House last week, senior advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity hammered home two messages: "We can't and we will not tell them how to conduct their affairs," an official said of the Iraqis. "That's up to them." In addition, he said, "we see nothing that would divert us from the track we're on . . . to end the combat mission in August," even in the face of sectarian violence.

Iraq's last national elections, in December 2005, took place under U.S. occupation; political discord and a five-month delay in forming a government led to an explosion of sectarian violence and a surge in American troop levels that then-Sens. Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. opposed. Two years later, the George W. Bush administration began negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on agreements to gradually withdraw all U.S. forces and establish a long-term strategic relationship.

The pullout agreements -- including a July 2009 deadline for turning urban security over to the Iraqi military and the departure of all U.S. military forces by December 2011 -- were signed two months before Obama's inauguration. In one of his first major foreign policy decisions, Obama inserted an interim withdrawal date, pledging to remove all designated U.S. "combat" forces by August this year, with 50,000 troops remaining to carry out training, diplomatic security and select counterinsurgency missions with Iraqi counterparts for 16 months.

Democrats and Republicans alike have a vested interest in declaring today's Iraq a democratic success unprecedented in the region and claiming credit for it. "This could be one of the great achievements of this administration," Vice President Biden, Obama's designated point man in Iraq, said last month. "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government."

Former vice president Richard B. Cheney took issue with Biden's assertion, calling it "a little strange" because both Biden and Obama had opposed the troop surge. Any credit to Obama, Cheney said, "ought to go with a healthy dose of 'Thank you, George Bush.' "

Biden, who had the last word against Cheney in dueling, mid-February talk-show appearances, accused the Bush administration of leaving a "mess" in Iraq. The U.S. military may have succeeded in "settling things down," he said, but it was the Obama administration that developed a plan to guide the Iraqis toward true democracy.

In four trips there as vice president, Biden said, "I have met with every single solitary one of the players in Iraq -- Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Christian. And we have been able to be a catalyst for them, moving . . . from the battlefield to the political arena" to settle their differences.

Although some U.S. officials, including Gen. Ray Odierno, the military commander in Iraq, have voiced concern about what they call Iranian dirty tricks and politically motivated violence, the dominant attitude has been laid-back: "That's just Iraq."

"Certainly there is a lot of wrangling over power and influence and who gets to do what," Odierno's predecessor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, told television interviewer Charlie Rose last week. "But again, some of that is Iraqi politics. It's 'Iraqracy,' we say sometimes."

Even if the elections proceed with minimal disruption, however, significant challenges lie ahead. Of the five major political groups participating, none is expected to win a majority, or perhaps even a plurality, of the vote. Getting a government in place will be arduous and time-consuming at best. The Iraqi constitution allows lengthy challenges to the vote count before the new parliament convenes to choose a president. After that, it could take months for a coalition to amass enough seats to form a government, which the parliament must approve.

Regardless of whether Maliki is reelected, his government will remain as caretaker during the transition, a time when the U.S. presence in Iraq will be shifting. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, already the largest in the world, will take over many functions now performed by the military, including training Iraq's police force.

Administration officials insist that the United States will retain significant influence with the new government, no matter who forms it. "Iraqis will continue to want our help in resolving their outstanding problems," including constitutional reform, disputes over internal boundaries and distribution of oil revenue, a senior administration official said in an interview.

"There are also things they want from us," the official noted. Under the Bush-era strategic agreement, the United States is committed to helping Iraq remove remaining U.N. restrictions on its oil revenue, as well as reparations to Kuwait for Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion, and to encouraging U.S. investment, trade and educational exchanges.

Despite the prospects of sectarian violence and Iranian influence, the administration is counting on Iraqis to pull back from potentially destructive detours out of self-interest. "If Iraq were to fall backward into some kind of chaos," the administration official said, "in the first instance it would be bad for the Iraqis."

"Given the huge investment that was made in troops and treasure over the years, I imagine some would say we need to do something to prevent it," he said, adding that there are contingency plans for slowing or reconfiguring the U.S. withdrawal. "But I don't think there'd be any great appetite for going back in."

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