Editorial: Withdrawal from Iraq isn’t sign of success

As violence in Iraq has declined over the past year or so, American concern about Iraq has declined as well.

The subject didn’t even come up — perhaps understandably given intense concern about the economic doldrums — during President Obama’s most recent press conference.

But recent events suggest various tensions are merely bubbling beneath the surface and could erupt with a vengeance.

A fierce gun battle in Baghdad last weekend may serve to symbolize increasing problems. Iraqi government troops backed by U.S. troops battled a contingent of Sunni Awakening militia members in the slum neighborhood of Fadhil. Most of the Awakening members eventually turned their weapons over to government troops, but an unknown number escaped with their weapons.

The Sunni Awakening Councils (also known as Sons of Iraq), one may remember, were probably more important than the “surge” in U.S. troops in quelling violence over the last year or so.

Many of these fighters had formed a de facto alliance with al-Qaida in Iraq but had become disillusioned with the religious extremism and brutality of al-Qaida. Even before the U.S. surge began many tribal leaders expressed a willingness to cooperate with U.S. forces.

The U.S. ended up paying salaries for about 94,000 militiamen, who quickly suppressed al-Qaida and other insurgent forces and took up policing duties in various Sunni neighborhoods.

But the Shia-dominated central government of Iraq never quite trusted these armed Sunni militias, although it promised to incorporate them into the national security forces. By last month Sunni tribal leaders were complaining publicly that the government had hired only 5,000 of the 94,000 Awakening members.

Then last week, the government arrested a prominent Awakening leader (who may well have been involved in criminal activity), which triggered the battle in Baghdad.

That battle was hardly the only example of increased violence.

Well-planned bombings, including one on a market street that had just been reopened because authorities thought it was now safe, have killed at least 123 Iraqis in the last several weeks.

The northern city of Kirkuk is perpetually unsettled and violent.

There have been several abductions of Awakening members and assassination attempts on Awakening leaders.

There is evidence that Baath Party members associated with the late Saddam Hussein are resurfacing In the eastern city of Diyala (once known as the “City of Death”), where 43 people were killed in March, compared to 29 in February and six in January.

It is unlikely this troubling trend will lead to a renewed civil war, but it highlights the lack of political progress in Iraq. There is still no oil revenue-sharing law — and oil revenues are declining as world oil prices have fallen. Most Sunnis still distrust the Shia-dominated central government and the Shia are mistrustful of armed bands of Sunnis. All factions are armed.

Delaying the withdrawal of U.S. troops is no solution to these problems. The presence of U.S. troops has not been sufficient to quell them, and in some instances may have exacerbated them or allowed the Iraqis to delay serious efforts at political accommodation.

Eventually the Iraqis will have to come to terms with the deep divisions in their country and come up with their own solutions, whether de facto partition or some other scheme.

U.S. withdrawal should proceed as quickly as logistically possible, but we should abandon the pretense that we “won” this war and be forewarned the process of reaching an acceptable status quo is likely to be messy and bloody.