The test will be whether, with our diplomatic help, they continue to use politics to overcome their differences, pursue power sharing and get to a better place.
WASHINGTON — As Iraq erupted in recent days, Vice President Joe Biden was in constant phone contact with the leaders of the country's dueling sects. He called the Shiite prime minister and the Sunni speaker of the Parliament on Tuesday, and the Kurdish leader on Thursday, urging them to try to resolve the deepening political crisis.
And for the United States, that is where the U.S. intervention in Iraq officially stops.
Sectarian violence and political turmoil in Iraq escalated within days of the U.S. military's withdrawal, but U.S. officials said in interviews that President Barack Obama had no intention of sending troops back into the country, even if it devolved into civil war.
The United States, without troops on the ground or any direct influence over Iraq's affairs, has lost much of its leverage there. And so the latest crisis, a rapid descent into sectarian distrust and hostility that was punctuated by a bombing in Baghdad on Thursday that killed more than 60 people, is being treated in much the same way that the United States would treat any other diplomatic emergency abroad.
Obama, his aides said, is adamant that the United States will not send troops back to Iraq. At Fort Bragg, N.C., on Dec. 14, he told returning troops that he had left Iraq in the hands of the Iraqi people, and in private conversations at the White House, he has told aides that the United States gave Iraqis an opportunity; what they do with that opportunity is up to them.
Though the president has been heralding the end of the Iraq war as a victory, and a fulfillment of his campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home, the sudden crisis could quickly become a political problem for Obama, foreign policy experts said.
"Right now, Iraq, along with getting Osama bin Laden, succeeding in Libya, and restoring the U.S. reputation in the world, is a clear plus for Obama," said David Rothkopf, a former official in the administration of Bill Clinton and a national security expert. "He kept his promise and got out. But the story could turn on him very rapidly."
For instance, Rothkopf and other national security experts said, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is swiftly adopting policies that are setting off deep divisions among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites. If Iraq fragments, if Iran starts to assert more visible influence or if a civil war breaks out, "the president could be blamed," Rothkopf said. "He would be remembered not for leaving Iraq but for how he left it."
Already, Obama is coming under political fire. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that Obama's decision to pull U.S. troops out had "unraveled." Appearing on CBS News on Thursday, McCain said that "we are paying a very heavy price in Baghdad because of our failure to have a residual force there," adding that while he was disturbed by what had happened in the past week, he was not surprised.
Administration officials, for their part, countered that it was difficult to see how U.S. troops could have prevented either the political crisis or the coordinated attacks in Iraq.
"These crises before happened when there were tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq, and they all got resolved, but resolved by Iraqis through the political process," said Antony J. Blinken, Biden's national security adviser. "The test will be whether, with our diplomatic help, they continue to use politics to overcome their differences, pursue power sharing and get to a better place."
So far, the administration is maintaining a hands-off stance in public, even as Biden has privately exhorted Iraqi officials to mend their differences. Several Obama administration officials have been on the phone all week imploring al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials to quickly work through the charges and countercharges swirling around al-Maliki's accusation that the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, enlisted personal bodyguards to run a death squad.
Aides said that Biden talked to al-Maliki; Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni political leader; and Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader. He urged the men to organize a meeting of Iraq's top political leaders, from al-Maliki on down, conveying the message that "you all need to stop hurling accusations at each other through the media and actually sit together and work through your competing concerns," a senior administration official said. That official, like several others, agreed to discuss internal administration thinking only on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue.
U.S. officials say they believe that Talabani is the best person to convene such a meeting, because he is respected by the most Iraqis.
Biden is not the only high-ranking U.S. official who is actively involved in discussions with Iraqi officials. David H. Petraeus, the director of the CIA who formerly served as the top commander in Iraq, traveled to Baghdad recently for talks with his Iraqi counterparts.
Beyond that, Obama administration officials have conveyed to al-Maliki that the U.S. economic, security and diplomatic relationship with Iraq will be "colored" by the extent to which al-Maliki can hold together a coalition government that includes Sunnis and Kurds, one administration official said.
Even without a military presence in Iraq, the United States maintains at least some leverage over Iraqi officials. Iraq wants to purchase F-16 warplanes from the United States, for example, and the Obama administration has been trying to help the Iraqi government forge better relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors, like the United Arab Emirates, which recently sent its defense chief to Baghdad to talk about how the Iraqis could participate in regional exercises and training.
Pentagon officials and military officers had hoped a deal could be struck with the Iraqi government to keep at least several thousand U.S. combat forces and trainers in Iraq after Dec. 31. But domestic politics in Iraq made that impossible, and the outcome also fit with Obama's narrative of a full withdrawal from a war he vowed to end.
Even plans quietly drawn up for the continued deployment of counterterrorism commandos were just as quietly pulled off the table, to make sure that Obama's pledge to reduce U.S. combat forces to zero would be met, according to senior administration officials.
The only U.S. military personnel remaining in Iraq today are the fewer than 200 members of an Office of Security Cooperation that operates within the U.S. Embassy to coordinate military-to-military relations between Washington and Baghdad, particularly arms sales.
The United States has about 40,000 military personnel remaining throughout the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, including a ground combat unit that was one of the last out of Iraq — and remains, at least temporarily, just across the border in Kuwait. Significant numbers of long-range strike aircraft also are on call aboard aircraft carriers and at bases in the region.
As the responsibility for nurturing bilateral relations shifts to the State Department, the responsibility for security assistance moves to the CIA, which operates in Iraq under a separate authority, independent of the military. Although the U.S. military is unlikely to return to Iraq, it is possible that military counterterrorism personnel could return, if approved by the president, under CIA authority, just as an elite team of Navy commandos carried out the raid that killed bin Laden under CIA command.
The CIA historically has operated its own strike teams, and it also has the authority to hire indigenous operatives to participate in its counterterrorism missions. "As the U.S. military has drawn down to zero in terms of combat troops, the U.S. intelligence community has not done the same," a senior administration official said. "Intelligence cooperation remains very important to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship."
The official acknowledged a risk punctuated by the recent unrest. "There are serious counterterrorism issues that confront Iraq," the official said. "And we don't want to let go of the very solid relationships we have built over the years to share information of importance to both countries."
Even if the unrest rose to levels approaching civil war, U.S. officials said, it was unlikely that Obama would allow the U.S. military to return.
"There is a strong sense that we need to let events in Iraq play out," said one senior administration official. "There is not a great deal of appetite for re-engagement. We are not going to reinvade Iraq."