Obama tries to distance himself from Iraq

Although Afghanistan now dominates the president's time, there are nearly 12,000 American troops still in Iraq, and with a monthly expense of about $8 billion, the fates of the two countries remain intertwined

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WASHINGTON // Americans, and the American media, are suffering Iraq fatigue. Mounting difficulties in Afghanistan and the increase in troops approved by the president now dominate public discussion about international affairs.

Barack Obama, the US president, has tried to distance himself from the Iraq war, which he branded the "wrong war" during his presidential run. US analysts acknowledge that Iraq has been relegated to lower priority after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the fledging Arab-Israeli peace process. "There is less presidential involvement in Iraq on a daily basis, and that was quite intentional," said Ellen Laipson, the chief executive officer of the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based think tank working on security issues.

But with nearly 120,000 troops still deployed there and a monthly expense of nearly US$8 billion (Dh29bn), the fates of Iraq and US policy in the Middle East remain deeply intertwined, US analysts said. "The way in which Iraq evolves and the manner in which the US withdrawal takes place will have an impact on regional stability and on US interests in the Middle East, for some time to come," Ms Laipson said.

The main reason for the lower-key US role in Iraq is the status of forces agreement (Sofa), signed last year, which provides a timetable for an orderly withdrawal. Sofa, negotiated in the waning days of the Bush administration but which adopted some of Mr Obama's ideas, has allowed the president to not have to define a new Iraq policy. US plans, inherited from George W Bush, now envision the presence of 50,000 troops in August 2010 and the withdrawal of most of the remaining forces by December 2011. The administration is now focused on staying on this trajectory.

Mindful of Iraqi sensitivities, Washington also wants to cultivate the perception that Iraq has become a truly sovereign state in charge of its domestic and international affairs. This means a lower profile for US regional diplomacy on Iraq, with Iraqi authorities taking control of their relations with neighbouring states. When the United States attempted to negotiate bilaterally with Syria this year over the continuing flow of foreign fighters across its border, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, rushed to Damascus to make it clear that Iraq itself would negotiate any agreement concerning its security. Later, the United States remained silent during the Iraqi-Syrian spat after Mr al Maliki blamed Damascus for harbouring Baathist leaders held responsible for devastating bombings since August.

US analysts say Iraqi authorities have reached direct understandings with Iran and Turkey, a far better outcome than having Iraq as a hostage to their contentious relations with Washington. Another factor that explains the more discreet US role in Iraq is the sense that Iran's interference there has peaked and is receding. The signing of Sofa, which Iraq approved despite Tehran's opposition, the defeat of Iranian-backed Shiite parties in the provincial elections of January, and the decision by Mr al Maliki not to join a unified Shiite list promoted by Iran for the coming elections are seen as evidence of declining Iranian influence.

Nonetheless, Daniel Serwer, a vice president at the US Institute of Peace, a research organisation funded by the US Congress, said he thought the administration was dedicating less political attention than warranted given the stakes. He said Washington "wants everything to stay on track: elections in March, drawdown by August, further drawdown before the end of 2011. But it seems reluctant to engage preemptively on political issues, like Arab/Kurdish territorial disputes, that may derail the [drawdown] process." He is concerned that a lack of progress on important political issues, from the status of Kirkuk to reconciliation, could hurt Iraq's promising recovery.

Analysts say that US influence in Iraq remains significant. It took a direct phone call from Mr Obama to Massoud Barzani, a prominent Kurdish leader with reservations over the electoral law, to remove that last obstacle to the holding of national elections in March. An Iraqi official, Krikor Derhegopian, was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying: "The US role was monumental. They brought everyone together." US officials also point to the visit of the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, last week to Iraq as a sign of continued US engagement.

"US leverage in Iraq has been declining - but Iraq's leaders and the public still seem to want American engagement in many aspects of Iraqi life," Ms Laipson said. Another reason why the United States will remain engaged in Iraq is the absence of a credible military to ensure the country's sovereignty over its borders, air space and territorial waters. This task is currently fulfilled by the US military, which is also training and equipping the Iraqi army.

Many Iraq watchers in Washington are now focused on the March elections, the outcome of which could either consolidate or reverse US political gains in Iraq. Mr Serwer said: "It wants to see free and fair elections without violence so that the next government will be seen as legitimate. It is not, however, a big secret that Washington will want to see an Iraqi government with broad sectarian and ethnic representation, which fortunately is what most Iraqis will also want."