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Has Obama taken his eye off Iraq?

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

When US Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad this week for a surprise visit, two days after taking on a new role overseeing US policy in Iraq, he said this was a moment when we "have to make sure that the Iraqis don't take their eyes off the ultimate prize".

The US and Iraqi flags fly at a handover ceremony in Baghdad, 10 February, 2009
US troops have withdrawn from Iraqi urban areas

But in the run-up to the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities, Iraqi politicians and observers in Washington were worried that it was the new US administration that was taking its eyes off the ball.

Over the last 10 days, a reshuffle in administration positions and a new role for Mr Biden overseeing the US withdrawal from Iraq and the political reconciliation there, seemed designed to recalibrate US policy on Iraq.

Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq and has been eager not to be too closely associated with its aftermath.

Uncertainties

His administration has also shifted a considerable amount of its attention further east - many have described the conflict in Afghanistan as "Obama's war".

But in light of the recent uptick in violence in Iraq, there were growing concerns that the new president risked making the same mistake as his predecessor, albeit in reverse.

George W Bush was criticised for not paying enough attention to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban and while he tried to fix Iraq, al-Qaeda regained strength both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Barack Obama cannot afford to lose Iraq," warned Kenneth Pollack recently.

Mr Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, added that there was a feeling that the administration's policy on Iraq was adrift.

Having lived through 'Mission Accomplished I', I don't really want to live through 'Mission Accomplished II'
Qubad Talabani
Kurdish regional government

He said the regional consequences of instability in Iraq would undermine whatever else Washington was trying to achieve in the Middle East, from peace between Israelis and Arabs to dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iraqis celebrated publicly and loudly the withdrawal of troops on a day declared as a victory and a national holiday by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But in private, many Iraqis also expressed apprehension about the void left behind by US troops amid uncertainties about the ability of their own security forces and army to keep the peace.

Others warned against declaring victory too early.

"Having lived through 'Mission Accomplished I' [President Bush's premature declaration of victory on board the USS Lincoln in May 2003], I don't really want to live through 'Mission Accomplished II'," said Qubad Talabani, the Washington representative of the Kurdish regional government and the son of Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.

In May 2003, on board the USS Lincoln, President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" only to find his troops bogged down in Iraq fighting insurgents for another five years, with more than 4,320 US soldiers killed so far.

'Less nursing'

One reason why it appeared that the Obama administration was losing sight of its goals in Iraq was the fact that there did not seem to be a point person co-ordinating Iraq policy the way Ambassador David Satterfield did under the Bush administration; no special envoys were appointed for Iraq unlike other countries.

Until this week, when the Iraq portfolio was moved into the hands of key Obama administration officials, Iraq policy at National Security Council was still being handled by a leftover from the Bush administration - Lt Gen Douglas Lute.

While it provided some continuity, observers said it had ended up giving the impression that the new administration did not care enough.

A US official handling Iraq affairs and speaking on condition of anonymity rejected the criticism, saying the administration understood clearly how much work Iraq still required.

"If Barack Obama had underestimated how much attention Iraq would still require, that changed very quickly after he was elected," said the official.

He added that the amount of time he and colleagues spent working on Iraq had, if anything, increased since Mr Obama had come to power.

Joe Biden (L), US Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill and Gen Ray Odierno emerge after a meeting in Baghdad, 7 July 2009
Joe Biden (L) has been put in charge of the administration's Iraq policy

But the official added that the perception people had that Washington was paying less attention to Iraq may have stemmed from the administration's attempts to normalise ties with a country it had occupied since 2003.

It is a sentiment echoed by the Iraqi ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaidaie, who said that the fact there was no special co-ordinator for Iraq was a positive sign.

"We need less nursing now," he said in an interview with the BBC at the embassy in Washington.

"Iraq has gone a long way since the early days of 2003 and we now have a much more normal relationship with the US and Iraq is a much more normal country."

But he acknowledged that despite the withdrawal of US troops, continued high-level US engagement on a political, economic and cultural level was needed to make sure that what had been achieved so far would not be jeopardised.

"The signals we are getting are very clear, they still care about the outcome in Iraq and they are committed to making sure that nothing is done to put that at risk."

Mr Talabani said he sensed some disagreement within the administration about Iraq.

"There is a tug of war between people who want nothing to do anymore with Iraq and people who want continued focus," he said.

The young Iraqi Kurd said that while he understood that "Iraq fatigue" was setting in and that Washington had a right to demand that Iraqis start taking responsibility for their own country, policy towards Iraq had to be more than, "Iraq is a sovereign country now, so you can take over."

While many aspects of Washington's long-term policy towards Iraq remain unclear, Mr Biden's new role signals that perhaps those who want a continued focus have won the upper hand for now.

But the vice-president's statements in Baghdad also make clear he will be pushing for Iraq to stand on its own feet as quickly as possible.



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