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Soldiers from 1st Platoon, Company A, Task Force 3-66 Armor and Iraqi troops wait in gusting winds before heading out on patrol in the village of Tahweela, Iraq, last month. Operation Dark Wolf Pursuit One aims to execute the "clear, hold and build" strategy in the southern Balad-Ruz District of Iraq's Diyala province.
Soldiers from 1st Platoon, Company A, Task Force 3-66 Armor and Iraqi troops wait in gusting winds before heading out on patrol in the village of Tahweela, Iraq, last month. Operation Dark Wolf Pursuit One aims to execute the "clear, hold and build" strategy in the southern Balad-Ruz District of Iraq's Diyala province. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi provincial elections passed in January with minimal violence. A withdrawal plan has been outlined. American troops will begin to leave Iraq this summer.

Others are headed for Afghanistan.

The trend seems clear: The Iraq war is destined to fade into the background, to the relief of many Americans.

But as the sixth year of the war comes to a close, Iraq still faces many hurdles, and the war’s place in history is far from clear. Before attention shifts completely to Afghanistan, it’s worth asking questions that many take for granted: Is Iraq really less important? What is being left behind?

Iraq’s regional role

Iraq is at the center of a precarious regional balance. The country marks the border between Shiite countries like Iran and Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Iraq itself is dominated by Shiites, although it has long been ruled by its Sunni minority.

Until the rise of al-Qaida, America focused mainly on Iranian-funded Shiite extremist groups like Hezbollah. Shiite militant attacks on U.S. Marines in Lebanon and the Iran hostage crisis made Shiite groups the focus in much the same way al-Qaida has been the focus since 9/11.

The Iraq war opened the door for a power struggle because the regime change upset the balance and left the future of the country in question. Critics have long noted this in their condemnation of the American presence in Iraq.

But regardless of the original justifications for war, American forces may have ended up tamping down the potential for these tensions to engulf the Middle East.

"The [U.S.] presence in the region has clearly prevented a final battle on who will win [the power struggle]," said Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The final shape of Iraq is not settled. The United States is a big power. If it was to withdraw, it leaves a massive change in the equation."

Iran’s involvement in Iraq is both religious and nationalistic. It is competing with extremist groups like al-Qaida over who speaks for the Muslim street, analysts say.

"You don’t want Iran controlling Iraq," said Kamran Bokhari, the director of Middle East analysis and a senior analyst at Stratfor, an Austin-based private intelligence company.

The less stable Iraq is, the more neighboring countries, including Iran, will be tempted to intervene.

"Military gains just deal with the consequences of the problem," Nasr said. "So long as there is no deal, there is always the chance of a hot conflict again."

The Kurdish-Arab dispute

Iraq also has the added challenge of Kurdish aspirations, which have been exacerbated by the war. Three of the country’s provinces have been carved off as a de facto state within a state. Deciding the exact borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government has been one of Iraq’s most persistent difficulties, a problem heightened by the presence of Iraq’s second-largest oilfield in Kirkuk.

The country has already missed several deadlines for deciding the fate of this internal border. Although the issue has sparked little violence until recently, it nearly derailed the Iraqi elections. They could only move forward because lawmakers again delayed a settlement on the issue. There has been a similar lack of progress on a hydrocarbon law and a revenue-sharing law.

The central government’s decision to push Iraqi security forces into the Kurdish-dominated Khaniqin district during its Diyala offensive last summer made it clear just how close armed conflict could be between the Kurds and an Iraqi government.

Iraqis aren’t the only ones contesting the Kurds. Turkey was the one that pushed to remove the borders question from the election law. It also strongly opposes giving the Kurds control of Kirkuk for fear that it would lead to an independent Kurdistan that would inflame Kurdish separatists within its own borders.

Turkey even invaded Iraq in December 2007 to attack Kurdish separatists.

Iran, too, has Kurds within its borders. With its close connection to Iraq’s leading Shiite parties, some fear that Iran was behind the government’s moves against the Kurds.

"In its ethnically-driven intensity, ability to drag in regional players such as Turkey and Iran and potentially devastating impact on efforts to rebuild a fragmented state, [the Kurdish problem] matches and arguably exceeds the Sunni-Shiite divide that spawned the 2005-2007 sectarian war," stated an October International Crisis Group (ICG) report.

Perhaps worst of all, the American drawdown means Iraq will have to solve these divisive issues when there are fewer forces than ever to maintain order. The prospect could be an already devastated country split by a three-way fight — or more if the factions’ internal rivalries rise to the surface.

Al-Qaida a lesser threat

No name is more associated with terrorism than al-Qaida. In the run-up to the war, Bush administration officials claimed Iraq was harboring and arming international terror groups.

Over the course of the war, that became true.

But al-Qaida is very different from groups like the Sadrists in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, said Nasr.

Unlike al-Qaida, those groups all represent clear constituencies within a territory, Nasr said. They speak for people with genuine needs and sometimes even provide public services instead of the official government.

The war in Iraq pushed the Sadrists into a leading role as both a social organization and a political party. Heavy fighting took its toll on the group’s Mahdi Army militia, but many worry that the group is biding its time until a U.S. withdrawal.

ICG described Sadrists as: "The expression of a genuine social movement among Shiites, with deep roots in the impoverished underclass as well as urbanized youth. The Sadrist movement reflected the frustrations and aspirations of a significant portion of the Iraqi people, which would find an outlet either peacefully, through politics, or violently, through armed struggle."

Al-Qaida does not have this constituency, and an ICG report from February 2006 — when al-Qaida in Iraq was nearing its peak — estimated that the group had only between 1,500 and 4,500 members.

"The local cause is not their cause, and their cause is not the local cause," Nasr said. "The extremists [like al-Qaida] pose a lot more immediate threat. But al-Qaida is not capable of controlling or changing the map or major facts on the ground like who’s going to rule what country."

Groups like the Mahdi Army, which greatly expanded their power over the course of the war, are capable.

The shift to Afghanistan

Afghanistan is as shaky as Iraq — and nuclear weapons threaten this region. Pakistan and India are bitter rivals, and both are nuclear-armed nations.

Bokhari said America initially went into Afghanistan with more modest goals than in Iraq.

"Now we have to deal with Afghanistan because it could cause a meltdown in Pakistan," he said. "We can handle an isolated war in Afghanistan. But we can’t tolerate that in a nuclear-armed Pakistan where it could spill over to India."

"Can we stop the destabilization?" Bokhari asked. "It’s not clear. But we can’t let it devolve into anarchy."

Now the head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, too, emphasized the link between Afghanistan and Pakistan during an interview with Stars and Stripes this summer — although he analyzed the situation in terms of al-Qaida.

"Afghanistan includes Pakistan — those are indivisible in the sense that we look at it through our security lens," he said. "It is, of course, in western Pakistan that we believe are located the senior leaders of al-Qaida. And the extremist elements that are exporting violence into Afghanistan and, in some cases, are certainly trying to do the same to other countries around the world."

Important in the future

In some ways, the wars that have dominated American foreign policy since 2001 and 2003 may not even turn out to be the country’s biggest danger. Bokhari said he is most worried about how the financial crisis could give countries like China a larger role on the global stage, although he said this probably won’t lead to a direct security threat.

Russia’s attack on Georgia also showed a revived strength that Bokhari said is a bigger threat than al-Qaida. Neither of those even involves Islamic extremism.

"Public perception is one thing," Bokhari said. "It depends on how policymakers are looking at it, how the military is looking at it, how our leaders are looking at it. The public may be looking at al-Qaida, but the leadership has moved on."

Six yearsin numbers

Bases

Total number of U.S. bases in Iraq: 221Number turned over to Iraqis since Oct. 1, 2008: 50

‘Sons of Iraq’

Number handed over to Iraqi government in Baghdad area: About 82,000(Following figures are as of October)Registered originally with the U.S. military: 99,859Integrated into the Iraqi security forces: About 5,200Found other permanent employment: About 15,000Portion of Shiites: About 20 percentIn Diyala province (as of Jan. 1): About 8,000

Migrated

around the web

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