Since the success of the 2007 surge in Iraq, violent attacks have fallen more than 90% and Iraqis have been making steady progress toward stability and democracy. That momentum is now threatened by the actions of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Maliki, and by the inaction of the Obama administration.
Maliki, whom I met a week ago as part of a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, is refusing to accept the results of the March 7 elections. They are not to his liking. His aides had told him that his State of Law slate could expect to win 110 seats in the Council of Representatives. Instead, he won only 89 seats, finishing behind Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which emerged in first place with 91 seats. Independent observers agreed that there had been little fraud in the contest — certainly nothing like the massive vote stealing that marred Afghanistan's 2009 presidential election.
But Maliki, a sectarian Shiite, won't accept the possibility that Allawi, a secular Shiite who enjoys overwhelming support among Sunnis, could displace him as prime minister. To prevent this from happening, Maliki is making common cause with the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of religious Shiites close to Iran that includes his archenemies, the followers of Muqtada Sadr.
Maliki has also counterattacked in the courts. First he pressured a three-judge election court into ordering a recount in Baghdad that could take weeks to finish but that isn't expected to alter the outcome. Second, and more serious, he has endorsed what are, according to Army Gen. Ray T. Odierno, Iranian-orchestrated attempts by Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission to disqualify winning Sunni candidates for alleged ties to Sadam Hussein's Baath Party.
With Maliki's support, the commission has already disqualified 52 parliamentary candidates, including one who won a seat as part of the Iraqiya list. At least eight more winning Iraqiya candidates could be disqualified. That would give Maliki more seats than Allawi and fundamentally undermine the legitimacy of the vote.
A victory for Maliki (or a Shiite ally) that is achieved through postelection manipulations would make it extremely difficult for the new government to reach out to Sunnis either in Iraq or in the broader region. It might even reignite civil war if Sunnis feel that they are being disenfranchised.
Senior officials in the Obama administration are reportedly becoming more involved behind the scenes to avert such a disaster, but so far they have made limited progress despite a visit to Baghdad earlier this year by Vice President Joe Biden, the administration's point man on Iraq. Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad put the emphasis on "transition" and "drawdown" rather than on ensuring the long-term success of Iraqi "democracy" (a word avoided by the administration).
That should be no surprise considering that President bama's overriding objective is to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. The Iraqi-American security accord negotiated by the George W. Bush administration called for the departure of all our soldiers by the end of 2011. Obama added a new twist by ordering that troop strength be cut from the current 95,000 to 50,000 by September.
The presumption was that the drawdown would occur after Iraq had installed a new government. American officials expected that postelection jockeying would end by June at the latest. But Iraqi politicians now expect that no government will emerge before the fall. Thus the Iraqi and American timelines are dangerously out of sync. Large troop reductions at a time of such political uncertainty will send a dangerous signal of disengagement and lessen America's ability to preserve the integrity of the elections.
The delay in seating a government also endangers the possible negotiation of a fresh accord to govern Iraqi-American relations after 2011. It is vital to have a continuing American military presence to train and advise Iraqi security forces, which have grown in size and competence but still aren't capable of defending their airspace or performing other vital functions.
U.S. troops also play a vital peacekeeping role, patrolling with Iraqi troops and the Kurdish peshmerga along the disputed Green Line separating Iraq proper from the Kurdish regional government. Kurdish politicians I met in Irbil warned that if Iraqi-Kurdish land disputes aren't resolved by the end of 2011 (and odds are they won't be), there is a serious danger of war breaking out once American troops leave. The possibility of miscalculation will grow once the Iraqi armed forces acquire the M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters that we have agreed to sell them. It is all the more important that an American buffer — say 10,000 to 15,000 troops — remain to ensure that those weapons are never used against our Kurdish allies.
Yet U.S. officers in Iraq are right now implementing plans to draw down our troops to zero by the end of 2011. They hope that some forces will be permitted to remain, but that will only be possible after what is sure to be a protracted and tortuous negotiation with the new Iraqi government. The last American-Iraqi security accord took a year to negotiate. If the new government isn't seated until the end of this year, it will be extremely difficult to conclude a treaty by the end of next year.
It would be a tragedy if, after having spent hundreds of billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives, the U.S. were to lose the endgame in Iraq. Yet that could very well happen unless senior administration officials — including the president himself — get more engaged in the process and show more flexibility in implementing the troop drawdown.
Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to Opinion.