Reports are beginning to emerge about increasing sectarian tension in Iraq, as trust degrades between Sunnis and Shia and fears of returning to the full-blown insurgency of a few years ago spread. This possibly deteriorating situation is connected to two concurrent developments in that country. Iraqi politicians are currently struggling to form a government following contentious parliamentary elections, with numerous sectarian undertones. Meanwhile, the United States is gradually withdrawing its troops from the country. Although the US drawdown of forces is a good move, the increasingly downgraded importance of Iraq among the US public and its leaders indicates a dangerous complacency.
While Americans want out of Iraq, the stability of the country is far from assured, and reignited ethnic violence in that country can harm both US interests and the American conscience. The best course for the United States to take may be to fully support the outcome of the parliamentary elections, including its winner, Iyad Allawi.
As I argued recently, the recent parliamentary elections represented a significant milestone in Iraq's democratic development. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's secular coalition -- which many Sunnis supported -- won a plurality of votes, claiming victory. He beat out incumbent Nouri al-Maliki's coalition of Shia groups, and the more radical Shia bloc of Moqtada al-Sadr. Because no side gained a clear majority, difficult negotiations among the factions are needed before a new government is formed.
Yet, al-Maliki has hesitated in accepting Allawi's victory. Al-Maliki ominously pointed out that he remains the commander of Iraq's military, and accused Allawi of fraud. Also, he convinced Iraq's Supreme Court to allow him -- instead of Allawi -- to set up the next government. And there have been continuing moves to disqualify some candidates in Allawi's bloc for reputed Baathist ties, which could erase his lead. In addition to this, al-Maliki has been negotiating with al-Sadr to merge their blocs, which would yield a majority.
If al-Maliki succeeds in holding on to power, the results could be disastrous. If he does so through extra-democratic means -- such as a coup (even a soft one) or disqualifying members of Allawi's coalition -- it could undermine the viability of Iraqi democracy and set the stage for a return to dictatorship. Even if he wins through an alliance with al-Sadr, ignoring the outcome of an election could degrade voters' confidence in the system.
More troublesome, though, would be the possibility of ethnic strife. Allawi's Sunni supporters hoped to balance the perceived Shia favoritism of al-Maliki through their votes. If Allawi were to be passed over for Prime Minister in favor of al-Maliki, this would -- at best -- lead to greater cynicism among Sunnis concerning the electoral process, with decreased participation. At worst it could lead to renewed Sunni-Shia violence.
Despite this possibly explosive situation, the United States has taken only minimal steps to shore up the political system following the election. This is far from the hands-on diplomacy that may be needed to help set up a new government. US aloofness is in part to be expected; Americans are tired of the war in Iraq, and are wary of being perceived as dictating political outcomes. Also, President Obama's agenda is rather full. Health care, financial reform, Supreme Court nominees and other domestic issues have high priority, and even his foreign policy attention is occupied with significant initiatives on nuclear weapons.
Moreover, US officials are likely -- and rightly -- wary of picking a winner in Iraqi political debates. Historically, outside powers' preferred figures in an unstable country are rarely the most popular, and their connection to the outside state makes them suspect to domestic audiences. In the case of Iraq, though, Allawi was picked by the domestic public with little US interference; support for Allawi would represent support for the Iraqi political system, not a hand-picked pro-US leader.
The United States cannot stay in Iraq forever, and Obama's plans for troop withdrawal should effectively transfer responsibility for Iraqi security to its government. But this does not mean we can ignore Iraq, or our obligation to stabilize the country we invaded. President Obama should throw his support behind Allawi as the democratically-elected leader, and make it clear that any attempt to reverse the electoral outcome will be met with US disapproval.
If al-Maliki regains control and the Sunnis lose faith in the system, the United States will be forced to decide between abandoning Iraq as it explodes or re-committing a significant number of troops to the country. If, instead, the US supports Allawi now, this would represent not an expanded US presence, but rather insurance that we can withdraw responsibly from Iraq.