Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Closer to Leaving Iraq

Yesterday, June 30, 2009, may well become known as Independence Day in Iraq. If so, I would expect those who celebrate might be jumping the gun a bit.

June 30 is the second milestone on the road of transferring to the Iraqi government full responsibility for the security of their country. (The first milestone centered on creating and sustaining (funding) the indigenous Sunni “Sons of Iraq” militias that turned against al Qaeda in al-Anbar province and in Baghdad.) According to the non-binding mutual agreement reached last year between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, all U.S. military combat units were to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30. U.S. units will occupy more remote temporary bases and patrol Iraq’s borders.

At the time the agreement was finalized at the end of 2008, it contained a restriction on U.S. operations that now has inverted consequences. Baghdad insisted that Washington not initiate any military operation from Iraqi territory against Iran or Iranian forces. The rationale for this restriction was seen by Iraq as an important curtailment on any U.S. effort to pull Iran into confrontation with Iraq.

As timing would have it, the restriction now seems to apply to Teheran than to Washington. The violent struggle of a significant portion of Iran’s voters in the recent Iranian presidential ballot caught the mullahs and religious leadership off guard. Demonstrations were so widespread that the ayatollah’s shock troops, the 168,000 black-clad Revolutionary Guard whose commander is Iran’s Supreme Leader, were called into supporting the conservative militia to oppose the reformists.

The government response to the electoral dispute may finally prove to be the start of political realignment in Iran that has languished in the country for 30 years. If so, the momentum this time may be against the cleric establishment rather than for it. The final throw of the dice may rest on the Revolutionary Guard’s decision on purity of religious belief inside Iran rather than pragmatic diplomacy with its neighbors.

This may be even more significant for Iraq than for Iran.

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