Originally Published 2011-12-26 00:00:00 Published on Dec 26, 2011
Last week the curtains came down on the 21st century's first unjust war - the US involvement in Iraq. But worse may follow after the American pullout. The implications for India of further turmoil in the Persian Gulf, particularly Iraq are enormous.
Iraq after the pullout
The US war on Iraq officially ended on December 18 with the last convoy of American troops quietly driving across the border into Kuwait. There was no triumphalism. No 'mission accomplished' banners flew around at the end of a war which has deeply divided the American public.

After nine years of war, the balance sheet shows more negatives than positives for the US and Iraq. The war has cost the lives of around a hundred thousand Iraqis, 4,500 American soldiers, maimed tens of thousands of Iraqis and Americans, diminished America's soft power and credibility globally, exposed the limits of US influence and has contributed to the weakening of the American economy through a $1 trillion price tag. The security situation in Iraq continues to be grim. In fact, the last few days have witnessed a spate of bombings. Militias backed by Iran and suicide bombers continue to perpetuate violence in the country. Economically, Iraq is in bad shape and economic concerns abound. The oil sector is underdeveloped and needs modernisation and investment, which will take time.

On the strategic front, Iran seems to have gained from the American withdrawal. Its influence in Iraq has increased because of its links with the Shia majority in Iraq. The Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al- Maliki, claims that relations with Iran are a pragmatic necessity, but the West, Israel and the Arab block are far from convinced. Iraq's non-committal stance towards the violence in Syria, which is rapidly becoming sectarian in nature, adds to fears that Iraq might become Iran's ally. If the Sunnis come to power in Syria, Washington and its Arab allies will gain an ally and Iran will lose one, thus changing the balance of power in the region. Iraq's alignment with Iran will be watched with great uneasiness in the Arab capitals, which ironically, could help the US solidify ties with the Arab countries.

One of the ways in which the US has left Iraq a better place is that it has nudged the country towards democracy. The country has had elections and now has an inclusive, elected government. The Shias, who despite constituting the majority of the population (around 60%), had been under Sunni rule for years, have finally got a dominant role in the government. Among other positives is the birth of a diverse and free press in Iraq.

The major adverse effect of the US withdrawal could be renewed fighting among warring ethnic groups. The Sunnis and the minority Kurds feel marginalised by the Shias. American troops guarded Maliki against a Sunni coup attempt and guaranteed the Sunni Arabs against misuse of Iraq's security forces by the Shias. They also mediated between the Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk.

Signs of a breakdown of the delicate power sharing deal among the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds abound. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has already attempted a purge of the top Sunni leadership by issuing an arrest warrant against the his own Vice-President, Tariq al Hashemi, for his alleged links with terrorism. Maliki has further pushed for a no-confidence motion against the Sunni Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh Mutlaq.

Though American leaders and diplomats have stepped in to defuse the crisis, it is far from over. Meanwhile, the Kurds in the North are eyeing independence; and there have been tensions between the Kurds and Arabs in the Kurd-dominated northern part of the country over land and energy resources. All of this has revived fears that the country might be veering towards further conflict between sectarian and ethnic groups and possibly a civil war, which could get Iran directly involved on the side of the Shias and the Arab countries on the side of the Sunnis. Turkey could also weigh in against the Kurds. Therefore, there is a lurking threat to the region's stability.

President Obama's Republican opponents have accused him of withdrawing too soon, saying that it would contribute to instability in Iraq. However, Obama seems to have got the public mood right in an election year: Americans are weary of the war. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that only 41 per cent of Americans feel that removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth the human and financial costs of the war. But an Iraq in turmoil does take the shine off what was being touted as one of his major foreign policy accomplishments, i.e. of leaving behind "a stable, sovereign, and self reliant" Iraq.

Though both Obama and Maliki have stressed on strengthening ties and building a new strategic relationship, it is difficult to hazard a guess as to the form this relationship would take. US influence on the country will definitely decline for the simple reason that throughout its occupation, Iraq never quite became pro-American. The only likely leverage that the US has in Iraq is arms sales. In fact, Iraq has already asked for billions of dollars worth of US weapons, including F-16 aircraft. The US is already spending around

$1 billion a year training Iraq's police and is spending billions more arming its military. But there are concerns in Washington about giving Iraq weapons and arms, while still being unsure about its policy vis-à-vis Iran.

The US withdrawal means that the Arab countries and Israel would have to be more wary of Iraq and Iran. Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, has clarified that the US is scaling back its military presence in the Persian Gulf to the pre-1990 level as part of its strategy to "demilitarise" US foreign policy and shift to an approach that favours counter-terrorism tactics. However, with around 40,000 American troops remaining in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, the US would continue to have a significant military footprint in the region.

The implications for India of further turmoil in the Persian Gulf, particularly Iraq - which has the one of the largest oil reserves in the world - are enormous. Iraq is currently the third largest supplier of crude oil to India behind Saudi Arabia and Iran and is projected to be the world's biggest oil supplier by 2015. Second, instability in the region would affect the large numbers of migrant Indian workers in the region.

Iraq does face enormous domestic, political, economic and foreign policy challenges. Whether it manages to resolve these challenges or heads towards a civil war will determine the future of the region. If Iraq unravels or becomes Iran's ally, President Obama will go down in American folklore as the President who "lost" Iraq, though this may have little impact on his re-election bid in 2012. So, all attempts will be made by the US and the Arab countries, perhaps through aid and technical help, to prevent further turmoil in Iraq and to ensure that it does not become Iran's ally. Iran on its part will work to retain its influence over Iraq. Therefore, the region is in for a period of further competition between Iran and the US over Iraq.

(The writer is a Researcher at Observer Research Foundation)
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