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Iraq Remains Critical to U.S. Goals

JINSA Report #: 

December 20, 2011

Officially, our war in Iraq is now over. The Saddam loyalists, the Sunni insurgents, al Qaeda in Iraq, and the Shiite militants of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army were all defeated by the U.S.-led international coalition. Today, the relative calm is maintained by Iraq's own security forces, trained primarily by Americans.

In many ways, however, Iraq remains a country of thirds (Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni), and its federation is exceedingly fragile. For years now, Iran has been seeking to undermine U.S. gains and destroy the precarious unity cobbled together by Iraqi politicians. Absent decisive action by Washington to preserve and even expand the U.S. relationship with Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's weak government will be hard pressed to resist disintegration brought on by persistent internal enmity and Iran's malign influence.

America's hopes for Middle East stability were diminished by the so-called Arab Spring, especially regarding Egypt. Long considered to be the beating heart of the Arab world, close relations with Cairo was vital to achieving U.S. regional policy goals, including the adoption of democratic values and preserving the peace with Israel. Naïve hopes for a societal revolution ushering in a new age of liberal governance for Egypt have been swept away by the Muslim Brotherhood's and the Salafist Nour Party's significant parliamentary election successes.

The lessening of U.S. influence in Egypt, at least in the near- to mid-term, makes the goal of close and cooperative ties with Iraq ever more important. To achieve this, the Administration must give a higher priority to its relationship with the Iraqi government.

Even as Iraq's importance to American regional goals grows larger, however, doubts about the country's future are clearly warranted. We cannot afford to ignore those doubts but must work to preserve that for which we shed so much blood and treasure.

A viable Iraq is a strategic asset. A fractious Iraq, riven by a renewed civil war, will strengthen Iran's hand in a vulnerable yet critical region.

Of primary concern should be countering Iran's undesirable effect on Iraq. While the Iraqi government will not want such an American effort to be visible, much can be accomplished discreetly.

Ongoing regional and global efforts to truly isolate Tehran, therefore, must be strengthened. If the mullahs in Tehran are kept disquieted about growing security ties between the Arab states of the Gulf, including Iraq, while being squeezed by ever-stronger sanctions, they will have fewer resources to expend on influencing Baghdad.

Military-to-military cooperation with Iraq should be intensified, thereby strengthening ties and providing long-term benefits to the relationship. This should include joint training, officer exchanges, intelligence sharing and continued provision of U.S. defense systems and supplies. The latter allows for ongoing cooperation in the training, use and maintenance of the equipment. In this vein, Congress should move swiftly to authorize the sale of a second batch of F-16 fighter jets to Iraq.

Sweeping changes in the Middle East and Iran's relentless march towards the development of a nuclear weapon make Iraq's importance to American interests starkly clear. It is time for the United States to get more serious about it.

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