U.S. Embraces Low-Key Plan as Turmoil in Iraq Deepens
As Iraq erupted in recent days, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was in constant phone contact with the leaders of the country’s dueling sects. He called the Shiite prime minister and the Sunni speaker of the Parliament on Tuesday, and the Kurdish leader on Thursday, urging them to try to resolve the political crisis.
And for the United States, that is where the American intervention in Iraq officially stops.
Sectarian violence and political turmoil in Iraq escalated within days of the United States military’s withdrawal, but officials said in interviews that President Obama had no intention of sending troops back into the country, even if it devolved into civil war.
The United States, without troops on the ground or any direct influence over Iraq’s affairs, has lost much of its leverage there. And so the latest crisis, a descent into sectarian distrust and hostility that was punctuated by a bombing in Baghdad on Thursday that killed more than 60 people, is being treated in much the same way that the United States would treat any diplomatic emergency abroad.
Mr. Obama, his aides said, is adamant that the United States will not send troops back to Iraq. At Fort Bragg, N.C., on Dec. 14, he told returning troops that he had left Iraq in the hands of the Iraqi people, and in private conversations at the White House, he has told aides that the United States gave Iraqis an opportunity; what they do with that opportunity is up to them.
Though the president has been heralding the end of the Iraq war as a victory, and a fulfillment of his campaign promise to bring American troops home, the sudden crisis could quickly become a political problem for Mr. Obama, foreign policy experts said.
“Right now, Iraq, along with getting Osama bin Laden, succeeding in Libya, and restoring the U.S. reputation in the world, is a clear plus for Obama,” said David Rothkopf, a former official in the administration of Bill Clinton and a national security expert. “He kept his promise and got out. But the story could turn on him very rapidly.”
For instance, Mr. Rothkopf and other national security experts said, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq is swiftly adopting policies that are setting off deep divisions among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites. If Iraq fragments, if Iran starts to assert more visible influence or if a civil war breaks out, “the president could be blamed,” Mr. Rothkopf said. “He would be remembered not for leaving Iraq but for how he left it.”
Already, Mr. Obama is coming under political fire. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said that Mr. Obama’s decision to pull American troops out had “unraveled.” Appearing on CBS News on Thursday, Mr. McCain said that “we are paying a very heavy price in Baghdad because of our failure to have a residual force there,” adding that while he was disturbed by what had happened in the past week, he was not surprised.
Administration officials, for their part, countered that it was hard to see how American troops could have prevented either the political crisis or the coordinated attacks in Iraq.
“These crises before happened when there were tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq, and they all got resolved, but resolved by Iraqis through the political process,” said Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser. “The test will be whether, with our diplomatic help, they continue to use politics to overcome their differences, pursue power sharing and get to a better place.”