Aug 28th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Iraqis naturally want their country back, and should have it as soon as they think they are ready
IT IS a cheering new sign of confidence that Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is now demanding an agreement with the United States that would require all American troops to leave the country by the end of 2011. That is a bit later than Barack Obama's proposal to bring them home by May 2010 and a bit earlier than John McCain's more tentative hopes for a withdrawal by 2013. But it suggests that the spectrum of serious possibilities is narrowing. It shows that Iraqis are beginning to believe in their ability to stand on their own feet. And it flashes a ray of light at the end of Iraq's still dismally dark tunnel.
Iraq is far less horrible than it was two years ago. The Americans' surge of extra troops, a series of ceasefires and deals with once hostile Sunni tribes in the west and with Shia militias in the slums of Baghdad, the windfall of extra cash from oil exports: all these things have given the country fresh hope.
But it is still a bloody mess. Some 4m Iraqis have fled the country or remain displaced from their homes within it. Hundreds are still being killed every month. A vicious insurgency persists, especially in the mixed-sect provinces north of Baghdad and around the northern city of Mosul. No solution to the rancorous dispute over the now mainly Kurdish-run city of Kirkuk is in sight. The Iraqis have yet to decide how to manage the oil and dish out its revenue. Above all, the newly dominant Shia Arabs have yet fully to accommodate the aggrieved Sunnis, who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and since its inception as an independent country nearly 80 years ago.
So Mr Maliki's optimism must be tempered with many a caveat. His new insistence on a strict timetable is partly intended to burnish a nationalist image in the face of his populist Shia rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has long demanded the immediate removal of the Americans. Though the Sadrists may not stand in the upcoming provincial elections as a party, individuals known as disciples of Mr Sadr are likely to do well. And Mr Maliki knows that what is agreed upon with an outgoing American administration may have to be adjusted by a new one; deadlines will be subject to shifting circumstances.
In any event, he still has a lot to do to keep Iraq heading in the right direction—and give it a chance of meeting a tighter deadline for an American exit. For one thing, he should strive far harder to bring into a new national-security structure the Sunni fighters known as "Sons of Iraq", whom the Americans have been paying to fend off al-Qaeda and other insurgents in Sunni areas of Baghdad and in western Iraq. Instead, there have been alarming reports that Mr Maliki's men have been seeking to arrest several hundred of the leading "Sons", thereby risking a deeper rupture between Iraq's two main Arab communities. It is also vital that Mr Maliki overcomes recent glitches to ensure that provincial elections, due late this year or early next, do take place, so that the Sunnis who had previously boycotted them are re-empowered. Parliamentary elections should follow at the end of next year. It is by no means certain that Mr Maliki will keep his job as prime minister.
Don't be boxed in
Moreover, any Iraqi leader will still need the flexibility to call on foreign allies' military muscle. Iraq's army has improved but cannot yet defeat the insurgency on its own. If Mr Obama wins the presidency, he may prove wisely more elastic in his interpretation of an American withdrawal; Mr McCain still rightly refuses to be hemmed in by deadlines. If Iraq's leader tells the Americans to go forthwith, they must do so. But that is unlikely to happen in a hurry. Whatever the arguments over the American-led invasion, it remains the case that a hectic exit would be bad for everyone, especially the Iraqis.