Iraqis need promises of post-war commitments from the U.S.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE OFFICIAL END of U.S. combat operations in Iraq that President Obama will mark with a speech Tuesday night is a milestone but, as we hope Mr. Obama will make clear, hardly an end to America's involvement or strategic interests in the Middle Eastern country.

For one thing, combat won't really end on Sept. 1. Fifty thousand U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, and their duties will include counterterrorism work as well as continuing to train and assist Iraqi forces and supporting U.S., U.N. and other civilian operations. For another, as Vice President Biden's presence in Baghdad Monday symbolized, the U.S. government intends to remain engaged in its alliance with Iraq. Right now, the focus must be on encouraging Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government -- that is, a government that represents Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities as well as the Shiite Arab majority. But the United States also has a diplomatic role to play in helping reintegrate Iraq into regional and international forums while discouraging neighbors, most notably Iran, from meddling.

Whether you initially opposed the war, as did Mr. Obama, or supported it, as we did, it's hard to dispute now that this kind of engagement is needed. A nation of 30 million at the intersection of the Arab and Persian worlds, Iraq is crucial to the region. If it remains on its democratic track, with Sunnis and Shiites settling their differences through politics, the reverberations through the Arab world could be momentous -- which is why nearby Arab dictators remain hostile to and resentful of Iraq's development. If the Iraqi people, having turned against al-Qaeda of Iraq, can decisively defeat the terrorists, that, too, will resonate throughout the Muslim world.

Such outcomes are within reach but hardly assured. Iraqi security forces have improved, and they have been taking the lead in cities for months now, but a string of bombings last week showed the continuing danger. Iraqis and their politicians have proved that they don't welcome Iran's interference, but Iran isn't going to give up. Iraq's economy is strengthening, but for many Iraqis daily brownouts and blackouts are an emblem of how life remains maddeningly difficult.

All of which means that what Iraq needs most of all from Americans is patience. All U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by the end of next year, but Mr. Obama should make clear that he is willing to consider extended security cooperation if Iraq's government requests it. And Congress should recognize that shortchanging aid, consulates and other tools of U.S. engagement would foolishly risk the enormous investment Americans have made in Iraq's future.

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