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Obama and Iraq: the myth of abandonment

John McCain and others continue to blame the escalation of tension and sectarian violence in Iraq on Obama’s 'abandonment' of the country in 2011, but the foundations for the violence were laid years before his election. 

With escalating sectarian violence and a crisis in Anbar province, Iraq is back in the news cycle. Casualties in 2013 exceeded 8,000, far exceeding previous years. Islamic militants have exploited sectarian tensions caused by the exclusion from politics of the Sunni minority, and managed to gain control of Fallujah last week.

Senator John McCain, speaking as a panelist at the BBC World Debate in Davos, attributed Iraq’s latest crisis to President Obama’s ‘abandonment’ of the country, and the waning of US influence. Earlier in the year McCain argued that Obama’s failure to secure a US presence in Iraq beyond 2011, ‘over the objections of our military leaders and commanders in the ground’, is directly to blame for the events in Anbar. 

Analyst Toby Dodge, who has been researching Iraq for 15 years, dismissed McCain as ‘simply wrong’ to blame Obama for failing to keep a US presence in the country. Dodge is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and author of Iraq: from War to a New Authoritarianism, one of The Economist’s ‘best books of 2013’. 

He describes McCain’s argument as ‘the myth of abandonment’. At an event in London at the IISS on [27 January] discussing Iraq and the forthcoming elections, Dodge pointed out that the foundations for the escalating crisis were laid during George W. Bush’s tenure - in the structure of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which set the non-negotiable deadline of 2011 for the withdrawal of US troops.

Dodge was in Baghdad when the negotiations for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and Iraq began in 2008. Maliki, who had enjoyed increasing popular support by adopting a tough nationalist stance, knew that being a tough negotiator on the SOFA would strengthen him politically, and that as the clock ran out on Bush’s second term, the US needed a deal. The first draft of the SOFA -- which gave the US control over airspace, granted US troops immunity for crimes committed in Iraq, and contained no hard deadline for withdrawal -- was rejected by the Iraqis. The final agreement contained the 2011 non-negotiable deadlines for troop withdrawal, and a greatly diminished US role; the US had been all but pushed out. US-Iraq relations have since been shaped by this.

Maliki also resisted pressure from Washington to request an extension of US troop presence in Iraq. Obama accelerated the withdrawal of combat troops to keep his election promises, but in April 2011, the US wanted to keep 10,000-20,000 troops in Iraq past the original deadline; they also wanted to secure them protection from Iraqi law. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Mike Mullen visited Baghdad in an attempt to get permission to leave troops and to secure immunity for those remaining, but the Iraqi leadership, constrained by popular opinion, would not tolerate any extension or any amendments. Maliki then cemented this by announcing that any amendment to the SOFA would have to go through Iraq’s parliament.

McCain’s statement (which was subsequently awarded one ‘pinocchio’ by The Fact-Checker’s Glenn Kessler, downgraded from two only by virtue of the issue’s complexity) that there had been enough support in Iraq’s parliament for US troops to remain after 2011, and that Obama should have fought to keep a residual US presence. But there is a big difference between having support for keeping US troops among some factions of the government, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and being able pass a SOFA amendment.

As soon as US troops left in 2011, Maliki began constraining the US and international presence in Iraq, for example by forbidding unstructured meetings between US military forces, and Iraqi civil servants and Iraqi soldiers, explained Dodge.

It is also a myth Obama left Iraq’s ‘fledgling democracy’ to hostile elements. The slide towards authoritarianism and instability was already well under way when Obama took office, and has a lot to do with Maliki himself.

After the parliamentary elections in 2010, in which he lost by two seats in an upset, Maliki set about dismantling his political opposition, breaking down Iraqi society in the process.  He placed the military under his own office, and thus, control. He has used his campaign against Islamic militants to move against long-standing political protests in Anbar, which his moves against political opponents, such as the minister of finance in 2012, triggered mass protests in the Sunni section of Iraqi society - who have felt excluded from Iraqi politics and discriminated against by the security forces.

The forthcoming elections in April 2014 – Iraq’s fourth parliamentary elections since regime change – will be the first without international forces looking over Iraq’s shoulder.

In 2010, when Maliki lost by two seats to another Coalition, he said he would not accept the result and demanded a recount. The UN stepped in and urged all parties to accept the vote. We will have to wait and see what will happen if Maliki doesn’t like the result this time around – but perhaps the more worrying scenario is that he will.

About the author

Alexa van Sickle is Assistant Editor at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and a journalist covering foreign policy and travel. Find her on Twitter at @AlexavSickle. Website: www.alexavansickle.com


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