In a surprising development this week, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Camp Victory in the heart of Baghdad to mark an end to the war and congratulate American and Iraqi troops on their joint success in suppressing violence across the country.
The trip, unannounced due to security precautions, was a chance for the vice president to highlight the Obama Administration’s pledge to withdraw all American soldiers from Iraq by the end of this month.
Far more important than beefing up the administration’s foreign policy bona fides however was the real intent of the American delegation — to reassure Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his coalition government that the United States are not abandoning Iraq but rather excited to establish a new strategic relationship between the two countries. Instilling that type of confidence within the Iraqi government is a smart and effective move at this point in time, given that the Iraqi Security Forces continue to battle domestic terrorist organizations throughout the country’s eighteen provinces.
The insurgency in Iraq has degraded considerably during the last three to four years. But the violence is anything but quelled completely. Armed groups, Sunni and Shia alike, are still strong enough to pose a threat to the Iraqi government. Al Qaeda in Iraq, now based mainly in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is only one of those groups.
To illustrate the troubles Iraq still faces, two separate attacks occurred in the province of Diyala during the vice president’s visit, killing eighteen people. At least 56 Iraqis have been killed in the past nine days alone.
Even with killings continuing on a near daily basis in much of the country, Biden was adamant that the Iraqi government is fully capable of defending its own people from domestic security problems, to which insurgent groups are still the main concern.
Compared to the early years of the war, Biden is right. Iraqi security has increased their manpower every year since the United States military began the process of rebuilding an indigenous army and police force. In Bagdad and other major cities, Iraqi forces have been in the lead since the summer of 2009 when American forces withdrew from urban areas.
The Iraqi military stepped up its game further in 2010, when its forces took charge of security missions across the country. Iraq’s counterterrorism apparatus is the best of its kind in the Middle East, with hundreds of terrorist killed and captured on a yearly basis and dozens of plots thwarted with American assistance. The question is whether the Iraqi can keep up the pressure without foreign aid.
There is also concern among officials of both countries about Iran’s motives as the United States hand over full military duties to the Iraqis. Without a lasting American military presence, Tehran will most certainly attempt to exploit the circumstances to its own advantage, as it has done since the first American troops hit Iraqi soil in 2003.
Iran’s connections in Iraq are strong with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maintaining liaison with Iraq’s major Shiite parties. Despite its persistent denials of sponsoring violence in Iraq, the guards’ partnership with Shia militias has been well documented. Iranian investment is pouring into southern Iraq, buttressed by the millions of Iranian citizens who stream into Najaf and Karbala for religious pilgrimages every year.
With the bulk of American soldiers departing, Iran is faced with two options — either increase its support for radical groups in an attempt to retain leverage over the Iraqi government or slowly reinvest more of its resources from proxy conflict to Iraqi politicians, businesses and infrastructure development.
The average viewer may look at the vice president’s visit to Baghdad as nothing more than a ceremonial and camera waving event but the administration clearly had something else in mind — the beginning of a brand new, strategic relationship with Iraq that expands cooperation from the security and defense files.