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Now U.S. should get out of Iraq's politics

By Juan Cole, Special to CNN
  • Juan Cole says some in U.S. worry leaving Iraq will reignite chaos, but that fear is misplaced
  • U.S. meddling has caused the chaos, he says, and Iraq should be left to settle its own affairs
  • U.S. presence has muddled politics without improving situation
  • Cole: U.S. can best help Iraqis by allowing them to return to being an independent country

Editor's note: Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History and the Middle East scholar at the University of Michigan. He blogs about the contemporary Middle East at Informed Comment. His most recent book is "Engaging the Muslim World."

(CNN) -- Americans may worry that the end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will reignite violence and chaos there. But the fear is misplaced.

Iraqi nationalists have greeted the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat brigade as a milestone on the way to Iraq's re-emergence as a sovereign country.

Washington was never able to control Iraq fully, and its meddling was partly responsible for the calamities that have befallen that country in the last seven years. Iraqis will better be able to settle their affairs and move forward once the U.S. stops interfering.

Some of the anxiety about the withdrawal has to do with the failure of Iraqi politicians to form a government so many months after the March 7 parliamentary elections. But Washington shares blame for that failure, because of the pressure it is bringing on behalf of its favored candidate, Ayad Allawi.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been pushing behind the scenes for Allawi to be prime minister or at least in charge of the Iraqi security forces, even though he has been unable to put together a ruling coalition.

Allawi's secular Iraqiya party, backed by some 80 percent of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, won 91 seats in a parliament of 325, giving it the largest single bloc. But to gain a ruling majority, Allawi has to ally either with the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki (who controls 89 seats), or the Shiite fundamentalist party, the Iraqi National Alliance (which has 70 seats).

Both alliances are possible but unlikely. Washington wants to sideline the fundamentalists, which it views as too close to Iran, and so is pushing for an Allawi-al-Maliki partnership. At the same time, Iran is trying to bring together all the Shiites -- moderates and fundamentalists -- in hopes they will dominate the government and turn Iraq into a friendly neighbor.

Washington's interference could boomerang on the Obama administration; the political gridlock and power vacuum could foment instability. But the deadlock has nothing to do with whether U.S. combat troops remain in the country or not.

Some point to the string of big bombings in Baghdad this spring and summer as a signal of the danger of leaving. But back when there were 150,000 U.S. combat and support troops in Iraq, big bombings in downtown Baghdad were routine. The guerrillas were setting roadside bombs for U.S. troops, often killing and injuring innocent Iraqis. The attacks are much less frequent now. Indeed, in July 2009, the first month that U.S. troops ceased patrolling major cities, attacks and civilian casualties fell by a third.

Many Americans argue that the Bush administration's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Iraq in 2006-2007 was decisive in reducing civilian deaths from 2,500 a month to about 300 or 400. But they neglect other reasons for the fall in violence.

Most importantly, the Shiites won the civil war and drove most Sunni Arabs from mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. Once that was done, obviously, violence subsided significantly.

This Shiite victory allowed militias such as the Mehdi Army to begin standing down when the U.S. demanded it. Sunni Arabs began turning to an alliance with the Americans, both to expel the Sunni fundamentalists and for help in defending themselves from Shiite militias.

U.S. troops were not able to forestall Baghdad's transformation into a Shiite city because they did not control the alleyways and tenement buildings where key battles were fought. How combat troops would suddenly enable the U.S. to prevent bombings of government buildings is not clear to me.

At the same time, U.S. favoritism to Kurds and Shiites encouraged these groups to adopt an inflexible attitude toward Sunni Arabs and probably caused ethnic and sectarian violence. The Shiite-dominated government knows that the U.S. would bomb insurgent Sunni Arabs if they gave it trouble, and so has consistently missed opportunities to reconcile with Sunnis. Left to their own devices, Iraqis might be better able to come to an understanding with one another.

Iraqis face crushing problems in the wake of seven years of war and occupation. Some 4 million have been forced from their homes, 2.7 million of them inside the country. Many cannot return despite the fall in violence because their neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed and local militias would kill them. U.S. combat troops were unable to prevent the displacement of millions and are unlikely to be able to reverse it.

Iraq is a country of widows, orphans and unemployed youth. It does not generate enough electricity to meet the needs of the people, and a substantial portion of the population still lacks regular access to potable water. The poor security situation discourages foreign investment.

U.S. combat troops cannot build power plants or provide potable water. The new Iraqi army is well-trained and well-equipped enough to patrol cities independently now. The U.S. can be helpful to Iraq through aid projects aimed at rebuilding destroyed infrastructure and promoting literacy.

Washington should stop trying to shoehorn its favorite into office, should stop showing favoritism to some ethnic groups over others, and should show some understanding of the necessity for good relations between Iraq and Iran (which are becoming major trading partners). When it comes to the military and political balance, the U.S. has done enough damage, and can best help Iraqis by allowing them to return to being an independent country.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Juan Cole.