- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2011

While Libya - as well as Egypt and Tunisia - continue to consume most of the American foreign policy debate’s available oxygen, other crucial issues remain at key moments of decision making themselves. Notably, Congress is now debating whether to fund ongoing State Department and development activities in Iraq next year. With all due respect to the new Congress, this should be an easy decision, as such efforts are necessary to solidify the progress experienced there over the last four years. But in fact, these programs and efforts are not enough - we really should keep modest numbers of troops, perhaps 10,000 to 20,000, in Iraq for perhaps two to three more years as well.

America’s remaining military forces now in Iraq - about six teams reconfigured as “advise and assist brigades” but with plenty of combat power, plus various types of support - are all scheduled to leave the country this year. Everyone is celebrating this presumed milestone. For Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it validates his promise to his own people back in 2008 to fully restore Iraqi control of the country within three years. For President Obama, it is the end of a war he always opposed, and the fulfillment of his own campaign promise to the American people when running for president. For the U.S. armed forces, which have worked so hard to stabilize Iraq, train its army and police, and then carefully downsize the American military presence in Iraq from surge levels of 170,000 troops to the current level of about 48,000, it would mark the end of a long and very trying mission that has included one of the most remarkable comebacks in American military history.

Yet it is too soon. Iraq has come a long way, with a 95 percent reduction in violence since the terrible days of 2005-07 and the formation of a new government after March 2010 elections that initially led to a prolonged political paralysis. But it is nowhere near being out of the woods. Bombings and killings continue with the potential to result in high-level assassinations or other tragedies. We should bear in mind not only the specific stresses still tearing at its people and politics, but the basic fact that nations coming out of civil wars fall back into conflict up to half the time. To increase the risk of that kind of outcome here would be a terrible shame after all that has been accomplished - and a huge setback for U.S. strategic interests in the region.

Make no mistake about it: The Obama administration cannot force the issue. It was at Mr. Maliki’s insistence that the 2008 accord mandating this scheduled departure was reached, and it was the Bush administration - not the current government - that signed the bilateral deal. Iraqi domestic politics still contain a healthy dose of anti-Americanism, Iraqis remain a proud people, and Mr. Maliki’s need to sustain a governing coalition that includes more extreme elements like followers of the firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr make it hard for him to change his position even if he wants to.

All of that said, there are reasons to worry that key actors in Iraq and America will make the problem worse and cement the implementation of the planned American departure when, in fact, there might still be an opportunity to modify it. Mr. Maliki is driven not just by understandable national pride and coalition politics, but a personal tendency toward rash action such as when he began the campaign in Basra in the spring of 2008 with virtually no planning or coordination with American forces, and when he wrongly tried to disqualify some opposition candidates for parliament a year ago. Mr. Obama has handled Iraq well to date, but his strong positions on the war make one worry that he may be too riveted on honoring the letter of his campaign promises of years gone by rather than sizing up the situation based on current circumstances. The U.S. military, with its can-do attitude and its appropriate respect for Iraqi counterparts, may want to believe that the current mission plan will work even when better judgment would lead planners to focus also on what might go wrong.

There are myriad problems still in Iraq, as my colleague Ken Pollack and other scholars have documented in a new Brookings book. They include unresolved constitutional debates about how much power the central government should wield, uncertainty over the future of the “Sons of Iraq” (as well as the so-called “Daughters of Iraq“), most of them Sunni, who did so much to check al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 but who worry that a Shiite-based government will now find it convenient to forget them, and residual pockets of al Qaeda and insidious influences from Iran and other neighbors.

But the most vivid way to understand the continued desirability of a calming U.S. military presence is to focus on the contested city of Kirkuk and its environs in the north of the country, just below the autonomous region of Kurdistan proper. This is the oil-rich and history-laden city where Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs come into contact - and compete for claims to the land and its resources. According to the Iraqi constitution, written with American help and passed in 2005, there is supposed to be a referendum on Kirkuk’s future. In fact, it was supposed to have happened by 2007, but disputes over who should be allowed to vote and what options should be presented to voters have continued to delay the resolution of the matter.

Kurds call Kirkuk their Jerusalem and believe Saddam Hussein tried to take it from them by diluting their demographics there through forced introduction of Arab populations in earlier decades. Arabs feel the Kurds have already gotten enough special deals and worry about the centrifugal forces that would be unleashed if yet another area was allowed to semi-secede from the center’s control. Turkomen, numbering up to 1 million themselves, worry about being squeezed out of an area they have lived in for centuries by larger groups and larger forces around them.

Some type of special status for Kirkuk and its environs - different from both Kurdistan’s autonomy and the province’s regular status within the rest of Iraq - is probably the right outcome. But that outcome will have to be worked out by Iraqis and it is nowhere near resolution. It will almost surely not be decided this calendar year.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi army units have almost come to blows several times in recent years as they tried to influence the competition for these disputed lands in Iraq’s north. Each time, cooler heads, shored up by American combat units, have prevailed. The United States has been carrying out joint patrols and manning joint checkpoints with Peshmerga and Army units. It has not threatened to fire on anyone, but its neutral status has been reassuring and stabilizing throughout.

There is a plan to create a mixed Arab-Kurd force that would continue this kind of effort after the Americans leave. But it will be made up of partisans to the very dispute that is not yet resolved. Why do we need to risk our departure at such a fraught moment? A couple of U.S. brigades could continue to play the same stabilizing role for one to two more years at little risk to our troops and little additional strain to the American Army - and very modest budgetary cost compared with the nearly $1 trillion already spent.

Perhaps some creative face-saving mechanism, like a NATO-led force under United Nations auspices backstopped by American units but with at least token participation by other states, will be needed to deal with the complex politics of the situation. We should be open to such an outcome rather than shutting the door and heading for the exits prematurely. Iraq has come so far, but it is not quite there yet.

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and coauthor of the Iraq Index at brookings.edu/iraqindex.