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Published: 4/21/2009

Unsettled Iraq

EVEN after six years on the ground in Iraq, problems are beginning to build as American forces move toward withdrawal over the next few years.

The question of who is going to rule after the Americans leave is up in the air and will not be resolved until U.S. forces have gone. Apart from the division of political power, there does not exist, for example, a law to govern oil revenue sharing. In the meantime, the American presence will be used by various Iraqi elements to try to improve their positions in advance of the withdrawal.

Since the resolution of the question will almost certainly be by force, preliminary maneuvering will also almost certainly involve force. At this point there is skirmishing, and the familiar weapons of car bombs and assassinations are appearing with greater frequency.

The tentative U.S. troop schedule includes pulling them back from Iraqi cities by June 30, withdrawing all combat troops by August, 2010 and removing the remaining troops by the end of 2011.

Control of Iraq will be contested, as it is now, by the Shiite majority, which accounts for 60 percent of the population and controls the country's post-war security forces as well as the government; the 20 percent Sunni minority, which ruled the country from independence until the U.S. invasion, and the 20 percent Kurdish minority, which under the Americans has become ever more independent of the Shiites and Sunnis.

The Kurds are sparring with the Arabs, especially in the northern third of the country, around Mosul, Iraq's third largest city. Further south, it is the Sunnis opposed to the Shiites, led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government.

The spearhead of the Sunnis are the Baathists, the party which ruled the country from 1968 to 2003 under Saddam Hussein. Also opposed to the government is the Sunni Awakening Council, which U.S. forces were able to enlist against al-Qaeda insurgents at an earlier stage in the occupation.

These resurgent conflicts - Kurds vs. Arabs, Sunnis vs. Shiites - are being cited by some as reasons for the United States not to withdraw. "If we leave, they'll fight," goes the warning. Another reason put forward is that a U.S. pullout would leave Iraq under the influence of Iran and Syria.

Answers to these points underline the wisdom of the course of withdrawal set out by President Obama. The first is, given the composition of the Iraqi population, the Iraqis will fight whenever the United States leaves. Does that mean Americans have to stay there forever, standing between them?

As for Iran and Syria, Americans should remember that Iran and Iraq fought each other in a bloody war from 1980 to 1988, a conflict that still resonates. Iraq and Syria were major political rivals for many years; a bitter split in the Baath Party was at the base of it, and that has not been forgotten.

In any case, the United States should understand that these are Iraqi problems, not American problems. And the war continues to cost our country more than $2 billion a week.



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