Parliament members are afraid to attend meetings. Iraq’s nascent economy is deteriorating. Hundreds of armed militias are ready to fight for their own interests. This is Iraq today.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met this week to discuss the future of Iraq. In a joint news conference, Obama acknowledged the challenges facing Iraq. More importantly, the president emphasized that Iraq needs to work for “national unity.” With this statement, Obama refers to the nature and will of the Iraqi people. While Iraq could easily become Obama’s nightmare with a policy that emphasizes sectarian divisions, a national unity framework will help Iraq become a new democracy in the Middle East.

The current deterioration in Iraq has made advisors and pundits (many of whom supported the initial invasion) fearful of pulling out U.S. troops. The misleading terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) means U.S. troops are more involved than expected. The terms of the SOFA called for withdrawal of troops from the cities, for example, but the city limit lines were drawn within previous borders of the cities, allowing troops to be positioned in what was once considered part of the city.

The proper framework for stabilizing Iraq begins with a simple notion: Iraq is for all Iraqis. Armed militias, lack of safety, and deterioration of Iraqi society are artifacts of a vicious regime under Saddam Hussein, coupled with untenable laws written under America’s occupation. These laws have undermined the sense of fairness that we wish for all living in a democracy — the majority rules, but minorities’ rights are also protected.

The presence of U.S. troops, advisors, and contractors will remain the central point for Iraqis resisting occupation. Continued opposition and insurgency will undermine the legitimacy of any Iraqi government, and could promote instability in Iraq and the region. An Iraq that embraces the concerns of all parties, while having a strong centralized government, will have the greatest chance for success.

A successful policy framework must include complete withdrawal of all U.S. personnel, including advisors and military contractors. We should provide reconstruction assistance, assistance in building secular institutions within Iraq, and space for the Iraqis to modify the constitution and election laws to promote secular political structures.

Insurgent and nationalist groups (excluding terror groups) should convene under United Nations auspices outside of Iraq for safety. The conference should strive to determine the broad outlines of the framework of agreement among all of the parties.
The United States shouldn’t play the empire game of installing puppet regimes. It’s both foolhardy and against our moral values. Iraqis will perceive that the presence of contractors and a bloated embassy are thinly disguised attempts to continue interfering in their government. If the withdrawal isn’t genuine, the Iraqi government will have no legitimacy.

The stakes are high after this week’s meeting between Obama and al-Maliki. Failure in Iraq could engulf the whole region and threaten to escalate oil prices. The failure will embolden states like Iran and North Korea. A failed policy in Iraq could also mean a one-term presidency for Obama.

Iraq must be seen by its citizens as belonging to all Iraqis, as it has for thousands of years. Prior to the invasion, Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions were evident but fluid. Christians ate at the homes of their Shi’a friends. Sunni married Shi’a. Kurds intermarried with Arabs. These relationships have been threatened and diminished by a war that fanned the flames of division and nationalism. Occupation and laws imposed by U.S. occupying forces have only served to threaten any enduring peace in Iraq. The sooner we learn this fact, the sooner Iraqis will live together in peace.

Adil E. Shamoo is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy. Bonnie Bricker is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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