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October 31, 2013

U.S., Iraq at crossroads


Considering the lumps the administration is taking over NSA leaks and Obamacare failings, don’t expect them to trumpet tomorrow’s meeting at the White House between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

That’s because despite Obama’s promise “to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” almost two years after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Iraq is desperately trying to contain raging terrorist and sectarian violence.

With an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Iraqis killed just this year (maybe 1,000 dead in October alone, according to one database), the security gains derived from the surge of U.S. forces have gone poof — up in smoke.

A civil war isn’t out of the question.

It turns out that al-Qaeda, previously taken apart by the hard work of American forces, has returned to Iraq with a vengeance — turning the clock back to the worst days of the blood-soaked insurgency.

One of the reinvigorated al-Qaeda groups goes by the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It’s running amok — and hell bent on establishing a caliphate in the region. According to some accounts, they’re making “progress.”

ISIS is taking full advantage of the instability in the neighboring countries to unsettle the other. For instance, they’re using Iraq as a safe haven for attacks into Syria and using Syria for attacks into Iraq.

Another worry for Washington is that (Shiite) Tehran is very influential in (Shiite-dominated) Baghdad. For instance, news reports accuse Iraq of allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to move arms to its ally in Syria.

With little to offer (other than some news accounts that Baghdad is willing to broker a nuclear deal with Tehran), al-Maliki is basically here on his first visit since 2011 with hat in hand looking for help.

Reportedly on his wish list are advanced arms (e.g., attack helicopters), intelligence-sharing, and other counterterrorism aid that will help al-Maliki douse the flames of insurgency that are consuming Iraq.

Talks with Iraq about a smaller, longer-term American security presence (military trainers) failed during Obama’s first term. And there’s plenty of finger-pointing on both sides as to why those negotiations crashed and burned.

A lot of the mess is also of al-Maliki’s making. Governance is a problem, especially the willingness of his (Shiite-dominated) government to share power with the Sunnis and Kurds.

Iraq is important to U.S. interests for a host of reasons: its strategic location, the war on terror, global energy supplies, and the blood and sweat of brave Americans who served there on our behalf.

But it’s more than that.

Equally important is that we pay close attention to what we’re seeing in Iraq because it may serve as a preview of what we may face in Afghanistan after our planned 2014 drawdown if we don’t get it right there, either.

 - Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Originally distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune wire service

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