It's been only seven weeks since President Barack Obama outlined a strategy for Iraq aimed at withdrawing most U.S. troops by the end of next summer. But already there is cause for concern. During the past month security around the country has been slipping: At least 37 people have been killed in four major attacks on security forces in the past week alone, and there have been multiple car bombings in Baghdad and other cities. Those strikes have been claimed by al-Qaida, which appears to be attempting a comeback. But there have also been new bursts of sectarian violence among Sunni and Shiite extremists.
Following successful local elections in January, Iraqi politicians are mired in backroom squabbling over the formation of provincial governments. The Shiite-led national government has made disturbing moves against some of the Sunni leaders who led the fight against al-Qaida. Hamstrung by the fall in oil prices, the government is having trouble meeting commitments to pay former insurgents or expand the security forces. Normally the U.S. ambassador would be deeply involved in trying to smooth over such problems, but there has been no ambassador in Baghdad since February.
It's not time to panic: U.S. commanders point out that overall, violence in Iraq is at its lowest level since the first year of the war. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, bolstered by the election outcome, remains strong and confident. But the administration needs to be alert to what is happening in Iraq — and ready to adjust political and military plans to prevent what could easily become a downward spiral.
One early decision point involves the withdrawal timetable, which calls for U.S. troops to leave all Iraqi cities by the end of June. That pullout is looking risky in a couple of places, including the northern city of Mosul, which has never been entirely cleansed of antigovernment insurgents. The U.S. commander in the area told a Pentagon briefing last week that American troops could remain in the city if the Iraqi government requests it following an ongoing review; such flexibility should be extended to other areas, if necessary.
U.S. diplomats and commanders also need to make sure that Sunni leaders — already under renewed attack by al-Qaida — are treated fairly by the government. It's hard to tell from Washington whether recent arrests of some tribal leaders were justified or prudent; that's one reason why the administration's chosen ambassador, Christopher Hill, needs to get to Baghdad as soon as possible. He should be confirmed when Congress returns this week.
Hill's main focus, once he arrives, ought to be helping to ensure that Iraq's national elections, expected next January, go smoothly. Judging from January's results, elections may be the best way to defuse sectarian tensions and resolve disputes among feuding factions. Al-Qaida and other extremists will try to disrupt the democratic process, while Iran will seek to manipulate it. Though the new administration has minimized the promotion of democracy as a goal, both in Iraq and elsewhere, it offers perhaps the best means of enabling the troop withdrawal that Obama has promised for next year.