As the last U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq this month, what kind of country are they leaving behind?
Iraq's economy, the security system and the political structure are all functioning to varying degrees, yet all appear fragile.
No one expects Iraq to serve as a beacon of Jeffersonian democracy to the region or the world. The more relevant question at this point is how well it will function as a democracy, period.
"Iraqis themselves are uneasy about what the future holds," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst. "Iraq can't control its borders, it's got a weak military and a weak government, and the economy is weak."
Violence has fallen since the country's most difficult period five years ago, but remains a persistent problem.
"Iraq is a country that's going to be characterized by violence for a long time to come," says Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The main thing is that the violence not get out of hand."
Iraqis have mostly been able to "muddle along" in recent years, says Celeste Ward Gventer, a former Department of Defense official who served as a political-military adviser in Iraq. They have avoided the "nightmare scenario" of descent back into chaos and rampant sectarian violence.
Still, she says, the country has "fallen far short of initial ambitions, and even the tempered ambitions that followed."
Iraq's center of political gravity is being pulled in conflicting directions. The dominant theme recently has been the extent to which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been able to consolidate power around himself.
His office dominates the legislature and is far more powerful than that of the president. Maliki has challenged the independence of other institutions as well, including the central bank, the election commission and the judiciary, according to analysts.
"Their version of the Supreme Court has almost become a tool in Maliki's hand," says Adeed Dawisha, a political scientist at Miami University of Ohio.
Such aggrandizement of personal political power, not limited to Maliki, is putting national reconciliation at risk, says Eric Davis, a political scientist at Rutgers University. At the same time, he says, competition among parliamentary factions is preventing various Cabinet ministries from performing adequately.
"They have all the trappings of democracy in place," Dawisha says. "You want to see if they improve their functionality in terms of democracy in the future. At the moment, as of today, they're not functioning very well."
Out In The Provinces
Iraqis understand political tradeoffs and coalition-building better than many in the U.S. think, says Yaphe, the former CIA analyst, who is now a fellow at the National Defense University.
They pull back and negotiate, preferring not to go back down the route of civil war. Still, she says, Iraq has a long way to go before it has a government that can function well, with accountability and transparency.
"They know this isn't going to happen overnight, or the day after we liberate, or the day after we occupy, or the day after we leave," Yaphe says.
All nascent democracies struggle with the question of whether there might be a return to autocracy, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Even as authority is becoming centralized in Baghdad, however, it's being challenged by the provinces.
Questions about oil revenues and other issues regarding the autonomous regions in the Kurdish north have yet to be resolved. The whole notion of federalism and more power for provinces throughout the country is being revived by formerly skeptical Sunni sections of the country, which are angry about budgets and their share of oil and natural gas revenues.
"There was and remains an argument between Iraq's sectarian groups about the future of Iraq and what Iraq is going to look like," says Gventer, the former adviser on Iraq who is now a professor of international security and law at the University of Texas.
Gventer says that certain indicators point to improvements in the lives of average Iraqis, such as the number of cellphones, the availability of electricity and the production of oil.
All of these have ticked upward in recent years, but some of the gains have been marginal. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains high, especially for the young. The private sector is struggling to create jobs, and the country has been unattractive to many foreign investors due to high levels of corruption.
On Transparency International's 2011 corruption perceptions index, released earlier this month, Iraq ranked 175th out of 183 nations.
"The private sector is not strong enough to carry the country," says Davis, the Rutgers professor. "Under those circumstances, Iraqis are not doing particularly well. About 20 percent are under what they would consider the poverty rate."
An Uncertain Ally
While the U.S. will have a more limited role within Iraq's borders, American officials remain concerned about Iraq's foreign policy. There, too, the future is murky.
Analysts argue about the level of influence neighboring Iran has with Iraqi political and military circles. But Iran clearly does have some.
Iraq was one of only two countries not to support a recent Arab League decision to sanction Syria, Iran's major ally in the Arab world. Rather than serving as a bulwark against Iran, it seems, Iraq is trying to maintain good relations with both the U.S. and Iran.
"Iraqis will allow the U.S. to have just enough influence to offset Iran, but not enough to provoke Iran in ways that are deleterious to its interests," Davis says.
At his White House meeting with President Obama on Monday, Maliki was at pains to emphasize that U.S.-Iraqi relations will not break off with the end of the American military engagement there. Iraq rejected offers to train its troops from both Iran and Turkey, and intends to continue buying its major weaponry from the U.S.
Still, Iran is an important trading partner for Iraq and possesses a superior military residing just next door. Anyone who expected Iraq to be "superfriendly or a super-reliable ally" to the U.S. is bound to be disappointed, says O'Hanlon, the Brookings scholar.
As long as Iraq steers a path that remains fairly independent of Tehran, there may not be too much cause for alarm, Gventer says.
But to the extent Iraqi foreign policy leans in directions favorable to Iran, she says, "that would be very disappointing for the U.S., after spending a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, to have created an ally for Iran."
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