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Iraqis Have Voted: Will the U.S. Be Kicked Out the Door Soon?

A surge of nationalism during a recent election provides a perfect opportunity for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal of US forces.

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The emergence of a nationalist movement is a direct challenge to the two countries with the greatest influence in Baghdad: the United States and Iran. Since 2003 Iran, which has accumulated vast power in Iraq, overt and covert, has been satisfied with a weak central government that is under the control of Shiite religious parties. If that begins to change -- if the religious parties' influence falls, and if Iran sees the possibility of a strong regime in Baghdad -- Tehran might decide to cause trouble, making use of ISCI's Badr Brigade or the so-called "special groups" that broke away from Sadr's Mahdi Army. That worries Iyad Allawi, who has re-emerged as a potential prime minister. "Maliki won't be able to fix things unless the whole political process is fixed," Allawi told The Nation . "And there will be an intervention by Iran to prevent that rebalancing of the political process. So there is the possibility of a lot of bloodshed." So far, Iran is placing its bets on longtime ally Maliki, who made a point of visiting Tehran right after the election. Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, then traveled to Baghdad, announcing that Iran will establish two more consulates, in Karbala and in two Kurdish cities.

For advocates of America's imperial project in Iraq, the re-emergence of Iraqi nationalism is both good and bad news. Good, because Iraqi nationalists are first and foremost anti-Iranian, and they will work hard to curtail Iran's interference. Bad, because precisely to the extent that democracy is allowed to flourish and that authentic Iraqis find their voices, the presence of US troops will not be tolerated. Having staked its fortunes since 2003 on a coalition (including ISCI, Dawa and the Kurds) that is also the most pro-Iranian, the United States is now going to have to accommodate an Iraqi political class that will blame Washington for the country's devastation and for propping up pro-Iranian separatists and religious extremists.

For President Obama, the handwriting is on the wall. If, on the advice of US military commanders, he attempts to prolong the occupation, he will run afoul of Iraq's newfound self-confidence. By the same token, the president can curry enormous favor in Iraq by accelerating withdrawal. Indeed, an early test of that proposition will come this summer, when Iraqis vote in a national referendum on whether to ratify the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, which allows US troops to stay in Iraq until the end of 2011. Washington can expect strong opposition from the nationalist movement, and the outcome of the referendum is uncertain. If voters reject the SOFA, Obama will have a deadline of twelve months to get all US forces out of Iraqi territory; if they vote in favor, they will do so only because the 2011 deadline seems plausible. In either case, they're not likely to look favorably upon any US effort to create a long-lasting military presence beyond that deadline.

That doesn't mean the immediate future is going to be peaceful. Obama is going to have to resist those who urge him, at the first sign of increased violence in Iraq, to slow down the withdrawal. He is going to have to work hard to get Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, to persuade their friends, allies and agents to avoid conflict. Obama will have to work with the UN, the Europeans, Russia and oil-hungry Asian powers such as China to kick-start a global effort to invest tens of billions in Iraqi reconstruction, allowing those countries to sign mutually beneficial deals with the Iraqi oil industry. And if violence does erupt, Obama is going to have to let the fever run its course.

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