In March, Iraq held a national election and reached another milestone in its evolution from dictatorship to democracy. The process was far from perfect, with bombings and deaths as the polls opened and some evidence of fraud, but Iraqis voted in remarkably high numbers.
They also provided their own troops and police for security, with no observable U.S. military presence. Turnout was even high among the Sunnis, who had boycotted the first national election in 2005, when insurgent violence was peaking. As former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht noted in The Weekly Standard, the 2010 election was “freer and more competitive than any election” ever held in the Muslim Middle East.
Three years ago, moving ahead with the Iraq surge was deeply controversial, and it required enormous political courage from President Bush. But subsequent events have affirmed that he made the correct decision.
Iraq has made remarkable progress since its implementation. The surge, which entailed not only more troops, but a significant adjustment of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, led to undeniable security and political gains in Iraq. Those gains paved the way for a drawdown of our troops. Violence has decreased dramatically, and Iraqis have shown a commitment to self government.
Many of those who opposed the Iraq surge are now acknowledging its positive effects. But some are now expressing skepticism about the nascent democracy in Baghdad, arguing that the Iraqi government is merely a pawn of Iran, since both are majority Shiite Muslim. This is deeply misguided. As Middle East expert Fouad Ajami explained recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Iraqis of all stripes are wary of Iran. In the provincial elections of 2009, pro-Iranian candidates were trounced, and Iraqi nationalists carried the day.”
Writing in the same newspaper, former journalist Bartle Bull, who spent several weeks embedded with Iraq’s Shiite rebels in 2005, has pointed out that the “ethnic difference” between Arab Iraq and Persian Iran “trumps the religious connection. The last thing Iraqis want is domination by any neighbor, including the failing theocracy to the east.”
Consider these figures, supplied by Mr. Bull: “During Saddam’s nine-year war against Iran, Iraq’s Shiites — 65 percent of the country’s population — provided about 85 percent of the cannon fodder for his Sunni regime. Iraqi Shiites fought hard and well in that war.” Mr. Bull also observes that the most important religious figure for Iraqi Shiites is Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has been a staunch supporter of Iraqi democracy and has rejected the theocratic model championed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
Despite fears that theocratic Iran will shape democratic Iraq, the exact opposite could happen. Indeed, there is a good possibility that a democratically-elected government in Baghdad will help spur positive change in Tehran. It could also embolden democratic reformers in Sunni Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Where does that leave the U.S. military personnel still stationed in Iraq? The drawdown of those personnel was negotiated by the Bush administration at the end of 2008. The resulting U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
President Obama set an accelerated deadline after taking office, calling for the withdrawal of all American combat forces by the end of August 2010. But concerns about political instability and increased violence led General Ray Odierno, our top commander in Iraq, to draw up contingency plans to delay that withdrawal date if necessary. General Odierno is right to consider adapting the mission to conditions on the ground. The gains we have made in Iraq have come at too great a cost to impose an artificial deadline on our mission.
U.S. Senator Jon Kyl is the Assistant Republican Leader and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his Web site at www.kyl.senate.gov.