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Iraqi officials see U.S. as neglecting the country

They say policy in Iraq appears adrift, focused on withdrawal and not on building long-term ties to promote stability. With Petraeus heading to Afghanistan, they fear a further reduction in attention.

June 25, 2010|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad — President Obama's decision to shift the U.S. military chief for the Middle East, Gen. David H. Petraeus, to focus exclusively on Afghanistan highlights what politicians, analysts and some U.S. military officers here say is a serious drift in policy toward Iraq.

Iraqi officials said they had detected a lack of direction even before Obama tapped Petraeus to replace his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who stepped down this week after he and his team made disparaging comments about U.S. civilian leaders.

The Iraqis describe U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U.S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy's single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here. Some U.S. military officers and Western analysts have also criticized what they see as a failure to think beyond the planned drawdown to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. The lack of focus may leave an opening for Iraq's neighbor and the United States' rival — Iran.

Petraeus made his name crafting the strategy that helped calm Iraq's sectarian strife, and was then promoted to head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing American military operations throughout the region. His reassignment to focus exclusively on Afghanistan, which the Obama administration regards as the most daunting conflict it faces, could hasten a further downgrading of attention to Iraq.

"Afghanistan is heating up. With such a high [profile] U.S. general, he will be sucking all resources to Afghanistan that he brought to Iraq," said a senior U.S. military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It does affect the balance of things in Iraq right now."

Iraqi officials are eager to take back control of their country. But some worry that the U.S. administration is blinding itself to the need for continued engagement.

"They deal with and treat Iraq as an ordinary country," said a senior Iraqi official said, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is all wishful."

Iraq still is plagued by armed groups and the constant threat of violence. Chronic shortages of electricity this summer have led to widespread protests and forced a government minister to resign. A stalemate over the formation of the next government could drag well into fall.

The United States for years played a role in all aspects of Iraqi governance, including developing basic services, helping revive the economy and providing security. In 2008, the U.S. negotiated the transfer of security responsibility back to the Iraqi government.

Iraqi officials cite instances that they say showed the Americans being caught by surprise: A veto by the country's Sunni vice president last fall delayed elections by two months, and an attempt by Shiite politician Ahmad Chalabi, once a U.S. favorite, to bar more than 500 candidates from running in parliamentary elections that reignited sectarian tensions.

One Iraqi official said the U.S. Embassy, led by Ambassador Christopher Hill, appears to be hindered by a lack of attention from the White House.

"Hill is a very good man, bright man. He has learned a lot over the last year, but Iraq doesn't work by diplomatic books. It needs something more than diplomacy, but his mission has been defined," the official said. "I don't believe they comprehend the challenges."

Iraq policy is under the domain of Vice President Joe Biden. White House officials say Biden chairs monthly meetings on Iraq in the White House situation room, and that both he and Obama receive regular reports in the president's daily brief, a secret document provided by top officials.

But Obama has not chaired a meeting on Iraq since last year, and according to one prominent Iraqi political figure, many Iraqis are worried that Biden does not have the clout to coordinate U.S. policy.

Iraq's political class complains of what it sees as often flat-footed responses and a newfound aloofness from Washington. "We don't have a feeling for Mr. Obama, honestly. We don't know him," said Mithal Alusi, a lawmaker in the outgoing parliament who has advocated close ties with the U.S.

Some analysts see risks in a reduced U.S. role.

"The pressure to shift resources to Afghanistan is so great that Washington's Iraq strategy seems to be based on a song and a prayer," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group think tank.

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute think tank warns, "Terrorist groups and the Iranians are testing the waters and seeing what they can get away with. And if they discover that the response is going to be apathy from the United States and our allies, they're going to continue.

"The perception everywhere [is] that we're in retreat," she said.

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