Iraq and the Shape of the Region

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Iraq is the third since the beginning of the year. Barack Obama entrusted Biden with the task of steering the American political course in Iraq. The visit comes on the heels of the development of a delicate stage in Iraq: Political reconciliation didn’t mature or materialize; neighboring countries live in a state of worry, anticipation and caution because of the political process; the security atmosphere and conditions on the ground in post-Saddam Iraq is shaky, in addition to concerns about a post-withdrawal Iraq since implementation of the security agreement that required the withdrawal of U.S. troops from cities, starting last June and ending with a comprehensive withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Uncertainty prevails regarding future prospects for U.S.-Iraqi relations on one hand, and future relations for Iraq with its neighbors on the other. Moreover, considerable domestic Iraqi issues are yet to be settled and the final political system is yet to be crystallized in a country whose citizens deserve to live in peace, security and stability.

Biden is taking a cautious and reserved stance regarding future security and political interactions in Iraq, in addition to its future relations with its neighboring countries. General Ray Odiero, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is concerned by the shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan while disregarding present Iraqi circumstances and rampant corruption, in his opinion, within the Iraqi regime, not just within the security forces. According to General Odiero, this is the biggest problem facing Iraq.

In the face of American reservation and pessimism, Christopher Hill, the American Ambassador to Iraq, seems more optimistic. He stressed that Iraq remains in a strategic position in the Middle East, with the possibility of stimulating economic growth and regional stability. In recent days, Hill made some interesting statements that didn’t receive much attention, follow-up and analysis in much of the Arab world. He stated that Iraq’s relations with its neighbors will shape the future of the region in the coming years and wondered whether the Sunni Arab world was ready to make room for a Shiite led country.

In reality, the muddle of the American occupation of Iraq hasn’t cleared, and the elusive identity of the Iraqi government has so far prevented it from confirming and settling its priorities, alliances, interests, foreign policy and even circles of decision-making. Outside influences remain the dominant factor when it comes to what is happening in Iraq. Moreover, most visits by Western officials (American and others) to Iraq are taking place in a sudden and secretive manner. This is an indication of the present security situation, shedding light on the issue of sovereignty and decision-making processes that further compound the confusion of the Iraqi situation.

There are American calls advocating the need for dialogue about the security structure in the Gulf in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Since the end of the Cold War, according to an article in the Guardian, Washington has used its military capability to manage security issues in the Gulf. But, with impending U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Washington will relinquish, for the first time, the direct role it has played in the Gulf’s security for over two decades. In her speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the possible U.S. deployment of a ‘defense umbrella’ over the Middle East to protect its allies from Iran’s nuclear threats. According to the newspaper, the U.S. is seeking to establish a self-reliant security structure that only requires outside help in difficult circumstances. In a July 4, 2009, Washington Post article, a high level U.S. official commented on Biden’s warnings to Iraqis last July, saying that “the return of sectarian violence to Iraq will put an end to the United States’ commitment to Iraq” meant “Iraqis need to solve their problems and face their own challenges without our involvement.”

This American position was understood by key players in the region, such as Iran and Turkey, who recognized early on that the future shape of the region is tied to Iraq. Whether this understanding comes in the form of filling the void or engaging in dynamic diplomacy by extending the network of alliances, it reveals an almost absent Arab response, as was recently demonstrated by the Iraqi-Syrian crisis, with Iran and Turkey acting as mediators to resolve a dispute between two Arab countries.

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