Frederick Kagan reports on his recent trip to Iraq





... On a visit to Iraq last month, we had the opportunity to see the transformation firsthand. Iraq is now a fully sovereign country. U.S. Commander Gen. Ray Odierno has insisted on the most rigorous implementation of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, which gives Iraqi authorities greater responsibility than ever before. U.S. forces now detain Iraqis only after securing arrest warrants from Iraqi judges, and they are releasing or transferring to Iraqi custody all of the detainees they now hold. The U.S. maintains forces and bases only where the Iraqi government wants them. The U.S. has already turned responsibility for the security of the Green Zone over to the Iraqi government, and Iraqi Security Forces have responsibility for an ever-growing proportion of Baghdad well in advance of the agreement's June 30 deadline.

Moreover, Gen. Odierno and the U.S. Embassy have established joint committees with Iraqi military and political leaders at the highest levels both to coordinate operations and to monitor and ensure adherence to the agreement. There is a committee for each article of the agreement that reviews all questions of implementation and investigates all accusations of infringements. Both sides have agreed that the approved minutes of these committees are legally binding.

January's peaceful provincial elections have reinvigorated Iraqi democracy. Iraqis voted in large numbers and, as dissatisfied voters often do, they voted the incumbents out. This was an important step, demonstrating that Iraqis believe that their vote counts and their leaders are held accountable. Iraqi politicians have gotten the message. The losing parties are working to develop platforms to win back their voters in the upcoming national elections. The struggle to form coalitions in the provinces has forced competing parties to compromise with one another at the local level.

Mr. Obama also said that Iraqis must"decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means." Iraqi leaders of many parties are already showing their determination to do precisely this. For some time, rivals (and even allies) of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been concerned about his apparent efforts to concentrate too much power in his own hands through the establishment of extra-constitutional government bodies. The Council of Representatives has used the 2009 budget to clip the prime minister's wings by eliminating all funding for these"illegal" bodies. In other words, Iraqi representatives have discovered the power of the purse. It is a remarkable advance in Iraqi politics that the parliament could act against the prime minister and his party, while nonetheless passing a law that is constructive for the state.

But the country faces three major challenges in coming months: national parliamentary elections, most likely in January 2010; major budget constraints, resulting from the low price of oil; and the threat of growing Arab-Kurd tensions in the north....



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