Iraq: Looking Ahead to Five Policy Challenges on the Horizon

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The Iraq conference I attended last week in Europe brought together an interesting mix of Iraqi thinkers and leaders, and I already mentioned the former Iraqi national security adviser’s personal views on the Afghanistan surge and the current acting national security advisor’s concerns about civilian control over the military, among other issues. Last week’s conference provided food for thought about some of the emerging challenges in Iraq. Here are five key issues as they are discussed today, with a brief analysis of how Iraqis are starting to look beyond these immediate questions to longer-term issues.

1. 2010 elections and Iraq’s emerging politics. Which parties will emerge on top in next March’s election? What governing coalition is formed between Iraq’s diverse political groups, who will lead the coalition, and will the losers accept their defeat peacefully?

As we’ve previously argued, the 2007-2008 “surge” has not yet delivered on bridging fundamental political divisions in Iraq — Iraq’s political transition and reconciliation remain stalled, and basic questions about how to share power left unanswered in the 2005 constitution are still unresolved. In the election debates, will political actors in Iraq create a new spectrum of thinking in Iraqi politics, or will they remain entrenched in their current positions? Or will more political actors simply offer up vague platitudes about unity, as happened in last January’s provincial elections?

2. Arab-Kurdish divisions. What are the security measures necessary to manage and resolve the Arab-Kurdish tensions in Kirkuk and the disputed territories? How will Iraq move forward with the proposed population census?

The census has been discussed for a long time, and immediately after the March 2010 elections there may be some steps taken to move forward on the census. Getting an accurate count of which Iraqis live where — more accurate than exists with the food ration card — could become even more sensitive as the possibility of a census approaches.

3. Oil production. Will Iraq attract the foreign investment necessary to increase its production and will the Iraqi government pass the oil and revenue sharing laws? How will other major oil producing countries, particularly neighboring Saudi Arabia, react to the very real possibility in the coming decade that Iraq reemerges as a major producer?

Some analysts at the conference indicated that one implication of increased Iraqi oil production is that it could increase tensions within OPEC countries, an issue raised in this article last week.

4. Security forces in Iraq. Will Iraqi security forces be able to take control as U.S. forces depart in the next two years? What does Iraq’s overall security apparatus look like and how integrated is that system into a broader regional security framework?

As Iraq’s acting national security adviser mentioned, the size and capacity of Iraqi security forces have increased to the point where some are raising sustainability questions and what impact those forces have on Iraqi society. A related question is how coordinated and integrated Iraq’s security apparatus is with the rest of the region — a question complicated by continued uncertainties such as the role of Iran and how Arab Gulf countries react to both Iran’s moves and Iraq’s reemergence in the region.

5. U.S.-Iraq bilateral relations. Will U.S. forces depart according to the timetable outlined in the security agreement? Will the United States and Iraq move forward with the strategic framework agreement, and what does the U.S.-Iraq bilateral relationship look like in 2012 and beyond?

Mowaffak al-Rubaie made the case at the conference that the security agreement and the separate strategic framework agreement signed between the United States and Iraq last year were designed as linked together – the strategic framework agreement outlines a comprehensive plan for diplomatic, economic, cultural, and institutional development cooperation between the two countries, where as the security agreement outlined the rules governing the presence of U.S. forces starting in 2009.

Many Iraqis at the conference expressed concern that their country had faded as a priority in the United States. As a result, the implementation of the strategic framework agreement was weak, and some Iraqis at the conference made the point that this lack of follow through could lead Iraq to look elsewhere for partners. Where Iraq fits in the broader strategy of the United States in the Middle East remains an unanswered question, in large part because the Obama administration has not yet presented a comprehensive regional strategy.