“All U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of December 2011.” This is perhaps the most important section in the bilateral security pact that was signed more than two years ago between Iraq and the United States. However, contrary to what has been promised, the U.S. is now trying to maintain its military presence in Iraq, and even some officials such as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Jeffrey James, have warned that if U.S. troops are withdrawn in the near future, the country again will be plunged into the flames of insecurity.
This has caused different reactions among the main Iraqi ethnic and religious groups, namely Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. In other words, the fragile political unity in Mesopotamia (Iraq) is now heavily overshadowed by the idea of extending the presence of U.S. troops.
Stances of different Iraqi groups
Iraq is comprised of three main ethno-religious groups: the Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. However, the recent elections have shown that the diversity of opinions in the country is far beyond these three categories. The position of these major groups can be summarized as follows:
Shia Arabs: The coalition government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the highest representation in the parliament, and supporters of the group are regarded as the most powerful ethnic group in the Iraqi population. The opposition accuses Maliki of having secret ties with U.S. officials and attempting to extend the U.S. military presence in the country, but the government is officially urging U.S. troops to leave the Iraqi soil based on the bilateral security pact.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, led by Ammar Hakim, and the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, have both adopted a mild stance toward the issue. They are advocating the implementation of the security pact, but they also want to talk about the possibility of continued U.S. presence in Iraq.
The Sadr movement, under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr, is the second largest group in the Iraqi parliament, which strongly opposes the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. The alliance between Sadr and al-Maliki was very important in ending the political stalemate in 2010.
Sunni Arabs: Ayad Allawi is a secular Shia who is leading a large group of Sunnis in the country. The position of the group is quite similar to that of the Maliki government. However, the group backs a continued U.S. presence in order to reduce the influence of Iraq's neighbors.
Another Iraqi Sunni faction, mainly the supporters of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and people loyal to the Iraqi al-Qaeda are greatly opposed to U.S. presence. This has caused a great pressure on Sunni MPs in parliament.
Kurds: The Iraqi Kurds are the only ethnic group which has adopted an almost unified stance, favoring the continued U.S. presence in the country. The reason is that the Kurds are mostly concerned about the fate of Kirkuk.
The perspective ahead
Last year, Iraq experienced one of the longest political stalemates, which was finally resolved by establishing a national unity government based on the plan proposed by Massoud Barzani. The government led by Nouri al-Maliki included all parties in the parliament. However, given the old disputes and rivalries between the above-mentioned groups and the differences on the issue of continued U.S. presence, the political unity in Iraq is now in a very fragile state.
The harsh statements issued by the Sadr movement in recent days have shown that any decision to extend the presence of U.S. troops can lead to the collapse of the government, leading to more instability in the country. Moreover, the Sadrists will be able to make alliances with other Iraqi groups which can seriously change the current political structure in Iraq.
It can be said that Maliki is now locked in an unprecedented dilemma. On the one hand, he needs the support of the U.S. to push ahead with his plans, and on the other the continued U.S. military presence can cause more trouble for his government.
Ardeshir Pashang is a researcher at the Centre for International Peace Studies (IPSC) which is based in London