The Real Change in Iraq | Charles Duelfer

The Real Change in Iraq

President Obama is doing the equivalent of the “Moonwalk” out of Iraq. There have been negotiations concerning the potential retention of US forces, but without success. It is not clear either side would welcome success. Maliki has no use for the US so long as Iran and its surrogates dial down the violence (which they have apparently done recently just as they did the last time there was a sensitive moment in the process of the US exiting Iraq). For President Obama, faced with massive budget problems, it would be a fiscal calamity if the we now had to sustain forces in Iraq…and to what end. They have sat in Iraq doing virtually nothing except consuming US tax dollars at a high rate….and absorbing attacks to which they cannot respond.

So the US is virtually out of Iraq. What matters now, and it matters a lot, is what takes place amongst the Shia across Iran and Iraq. The pre-eminent Shia Cleric in Iraq is Ayatollah Sistani who has, since the US invasion, assumed the lead spiritual and to a certain extent secular opinion leader. All leaders of all parties in Iraq recognize his influence and take care to attend to his views from the holy city of Najaf. For Americans, it is easy to forget that he is a dominant figure among all Shia, including in Iran. Clerics in Iran, view his position in Najaf with some envy. Their closest ally in Iraq is Moqtadr Sadr who has been regularly characterised as a “Firebrand” and runs his own militia in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki is now beholden to Moqtadr since his ruling coalition depends upon the seats in Parliment Moqtadr controls. Moqtadr, who is more frequently a resident of Iran than Iraq, fills a need for the many unemployed un-empowered young Shia men of Iraq. And he derives funding and assistance from the Clerics of Tehran.

The major, pending change in Iraq, is not the withdrawal of US troops, but what happens when Ayatollah Sistani dies? The spiritual center of Iraq will be open and the Clerics in Iran will be making a strong play for that. There will be a power struggle that is not obvious to those who focus on the power politics we recognize in Baghdad. But the power struggle will be much more important to the overall balance between Iraq and Iran and depending how it turns out, radical changes may happen in Iraq…none that will be seen as good from our perspective. Get ready for another round of sectarian warfare.

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