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Old 11-13-2008, 11:20 AM   #1
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Obama's Iraq plan about to meet reality...

Obama’s Iraq plan about to meet reality




By Charles Levinson - USA TODAY
Posted : Wednesday Nov 12, 2008 20:48:49 EST

BAGHDAD — Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive, will never forget Nov. 20, 2006. That was the day Barack Obama declared Iraq was “descending into chaos” and called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, in a speech that would define the war policy Obama carried into his historic run for president.
Eskander remembers it for a different reason: “That was the saddest day of my life.”
That morning, mortars and gunfire echoed outside Eskander’s office in downtown Baghdad. Then, just before noon, he learned that one of his staffers had been shot dead by a sectarian militia while on his way to work.
The slaying bolstered Eskander’s belief, shared by most Iraqis during that bloody era of the war, that America was part of the problem in Iraq and U.S. troops should leave.
Since then, Iraq has changed dramatically — and so has Eskander’s opinion. Such killings in Baghdad largely have ceased, and Iraqi politicians have resolved some of the sectarian differences that fueled violence. “So much has changed,” says Eskander, who fears there could be renewed chaos if Obama withdraws U.S. troops too quickly.
Eskander’s story underscores a key question facing Obama as the president-elect prepares to take office Jan. 20: How much, if at all, will his Iraq policy as president differ from the promises he made during his campaign?
Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, and his proposed 16-month timetable for removing U.S. combat troops, was one of the cornerstones of the Democrat’s campaign. That platform was forged when more than 100 U.S. troops were dying in Iraq each month, and two-thirds of Iraqis supported attacks against U.S. soldiers, according to a poll Obama referenced in that speech in 2006 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Since the Bush administration ordered an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq last year, violence has fallen 80 percent from its all-time high. Fourteen American troops died last month, one short of a record low.
Although al-Qaida and other militant groups still pose a threat in Iraq, many of the same insurgents who were attacking U.S. forces in 2006 have since switched sides and are among the United States’ closest allies.
The changing reality has spurred a rigorous debate among Iraq experts who advised Obama during his campaign and who could play prominent roles in his administration.
Some, including George Washington University professor Marc Lynch, have urged Obama to follow through with his plans for a measured withdrawal, arguing that the recent progress in security could lead Iraqi politicians to delay difficult decisions unless they know U.S. troops will leave by a certain date.
Others, such as Georgetown University professor Colin Kahl, have called on Obama to be flexible on the timing and pace of withdrawal to avoid a security setback and to give Iraqi politicians an incentive to pass legislation, such as an oil revenue-sharing law, that is crucial to a long-term peace.
Obama appeared to allude to that possibility in July when, before departing on a trip to Baghdad, he said he could “refine” his war policy.
Officials from Obama’s transition team declined to comment on whether his Iraq policy might change.
Some outside observers say that like other U.S. presidents who have taken office during wartime, Obama may have to improvise to a degree that neither he nor his advisers can fathom.
“Obama is going to find he has to chart a different course in Iraq than he campaigned on,” says Reidar Visser, who runs the Iraq-focused Web site historiae.org.
Visser says an emboldened Iraqi government may push back more strongly in negotiations than Obama expects.
Waiting for Obama

Obama will be dealing with Iraq’s fate when his attention — and that of the American public — is mostly focused on the faltering U.S. economy.
The war faded as a major issue during the campaign: 10 percent of voters cited Iraq in exit polls as the issue that most affected their vote, compared with 62 percent who chose the economy.
Friday, during his first news conference as president-elect, Obama did not mention Iraq. (Iran, Syria and Venezuela did come up.)
However, the decisions Obama makes in Iraq will go a long way toward determining his other policies — namely how many troops he can shift to the war in Afghanistan, which he has cited as a priority in cracking down on the al-Qaida terror network, and how much money he has at his disposal to help prop up the economy.
The importance is certainly not lost on politicians and ordinary people in Iraq, where they are closely watching for any sign of how Obama will act.
“We are confident there won’t be a change in policy overnight,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told USA TODAY. “I think Obama understands that the security gains, political and economic progress that has been achieved here should not be squandered.”
Already, Obama is showing signs of differences in style and substance from the Bush administration.
When a group of advisers to the Obama campaign visited Iraq last month before the election, they delivered a stern warning to local politicians regarding a long-term legal framework for the presence of U.S. troops.
Talks have been deadlocked for months as the Iraqis seek a firm date for U.S. troop withdrawal and the right to prosecute U.S. troops in some instances, raising the prospect that negotiations might not be concluded before Bush leaves office.
“They (Obama’s advisers) told us that if we didn’t take what the Bush administration was offering on the security deal, then we would likely find ourselves getting much less under the Democratic administration,” says Haydar al-Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker who was at the meeting.
Al-Abadi said the meeting confirmed a widespread belief in Iraq that Obama “is not going to be as sympathetic” as Bush toward Iraqi politicians.
“Iraq is Bush’s project,” al-Abadi said. “It’s not Obama’s.”
Making matters more difficult: Iraqi politicians must walk a fine line while catering to their own audience of voters at home. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pressed for a firm deadline to get all U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2011. But he also has spoken of the need for the United States to continue training Iraqi soldiers and providing much-needed economic and diplomatic backing.
Provincial elections scheduled for January are likely to make al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders particularly sensitive to the perception they are being pushed around by Washington — meaning that if Obama pushes too hard for concessions, it could weaken the Iraqi government and erode the security gains.
“Bush had to stop the violence,” says Leslie Gelb, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, a non-partisan New York think-tank. “Obama has to consider how to end the war while holding on to the significant gains. In many ways, it’s a trickier scenario.”
‘Moderation in his language’

The main decision facing Obama is when, and under what conditions, to withdraw troops.
Even during the campaign, Obama left himself some room for maneuvering by saying that, even after U.S. combat troops left Iraq, he was open to keeping a sizable — and undefined — contingent of U.S. forces there to train and support Iraqi security forces.
One of Obama’s top foreign policy aides, former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, told NPR this summer that as many as 55,000 U.S. troops could remain in that advisory capacity in Iraq — down from about 145,000 troops currently.
Gelb noted that late in the campaign Obama seemed to speak of the 16-month timetable less frequently than he did during the Democratic primaries, when his opposition to the war was the main policy difference between him and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“You saw a kind of moderation in his language and tone, which is exactly what he should be doing,” Gelb says.
If Obama does stick to his plan for such a timetable, then the question becomes just how rigid it will be.
A recent paper by the Center for a New American Security, whose three authors included Kahl, the coordinator of the Obama campaign’s day-to-day working group on Iraq, argued that U.S. support “should hinge on continued progress toward political accommodation.”
That means an Obama administration would continue military and economic aid as long as Iraq’s government met targets for passing key measures such as the oil law.
A differing position was outlined in a report by the Center for a New American Progress, whose president, John Podesta, heads Obama’s transition team. That report says a mere threat to withdraw soldiers and support won’t be enough.
“Unless we set a firm withdrawal date and make it clear that our open-ended support has a deadline, the Iraqis aren’t going to get serious about what they need to do,” says the report’s co-author Larry Korb, an informal adviser to the Obama campaign.
Visser, the Iraq analyst, says the disagreement centers on different ideas about what’s going on inside Prime Minister al-Maliki’s head.
“It comes down to an issue of leverage,” Visser says. “How does the U.S. get the Iraqi government to do what the U.S. wants it to do?
”Kahl thinks Maliki really wants the U.S. to stay and that if we threaten to leave, he’ll come around,“ Visser says. ”Whereas the other view assumes that only when Maliki is faced with the reality of U.S. withdrawal, will he finally make the decisions necessary to hold the country together in the U.S.’s absence.“
The challenges ahead

Among the other challenges Obama will face in Iraq:
• Healing the wounds between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Though the sectarian killings of 2006-07 have mostly ceased, leaders of the country’s main ethnic groups remain deeply suspicious of each other.
The former Sunni insurgents who turned on al-Qaida (which is led by fundamentalist Sunnis) and helped restore security across much of Iraq remain in limbo.
They’re waiting for promised government jobs in the nation’s security forces and elsewhere. There is no oil law guaranteeing equitable distribution of the country’s wealth, and it is unclear whether the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk will become part of the Kurdish autonomous region in the north, as many Kurds demand.
The provincial elections in January and parliamentary elections that are likely in the fall could go a long way toward resolving some of those tensions.
Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of U.S. forces in most of southern Iraq, has said he would be uncomfortable committing to troop reductions until after the elections play out.
• Convincing Iraq to pick up more of the war’s cost. U.S. taxpayers foot a war bill of $10 billion a month; the Iraqi government spent less than one-third of the amount set aside in its budget for investment in 2007, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
That cost has taken on even more urgency with the looming recession, a point Obama repeatedly made during the campaign.
Lt. Col. Gregory Baine, a battalion commander in Baghdad, underscored shifting U.S. priorities recently: “We’re worrying less about bad guys these days, and more about bad governance.”
• Getting Iraq’s neighbors to cooperate. Iranian influence continues to grow as Tehran’s Shiite allies in Iraq cement their hold on government and the security forces. The Shiite militias funded, armed and trained by Iran are largely dormant at the moment, but U.S. commanders have expressed fears that Iran could turn them loose again at any time.
Obama said during the campaign that he would meet with Iran’s leaders without preconditions, though he said later that such bilateral talks would require careful preparation.
Amid all the questions, Jalal Eddin al-Saghir, a prominent Shiite cleric and lawmaker, offered one certainty in a conversation last week with Iraqi journalists: “Obama the president,” he assured them, “will be different than Obama the candidate.”
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