As Iraq struggles with sectarian bloodshed and deep political divisions, the United States now offers only advice.
WASHINGTON - As Iraq erupted in recent days, Vice President Joe Biden was in constant phone contact with the leaders of the country's dueling sects. He called the Shiite prime minister and the Sunni speaker of the Parliament on Tuesday, and the Kurdish leader on Thursday, urging them to try to resolve the deepening political crisis.
And for the United States, that is where the U.S. intervention in Iraq officially stops.
Sectarian violence and political turmoil in Iraq escalated within days of the U.S. military's withdrawal, but U.S. officials said in interviews that President Obama had no intention of sending troops back into the country, even if it devolved into civil war.
The United States, without troops on the ground or any direct influence over Iraq's affairs, has lost much of its leverage there. And so the latest crisis, a rapid descent into sectarian distrust and hostility that was punctuated by a bombing in Baghdad on Thursday that killed more than 60 people, is being treated in much the same way that the United States would treat any other diplomatic emergency abroad.
Obama, his aides said, is adamant that the United States will not send troops back to Iraq. At Fort Bragg, N.C., on Dec. 14, he told returning troops that he had left Iraq in the hands of the Iraqi people, and in private conversations at the White House, he has told aides that the United States gave Iraqis an opportunity; what they do with that opportunity is up to them.
Though the president has been heralding the end of the Iraq war as a victory, and a fulfillment of his campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home, the sudden crisis could quickly become a political problem, foreign policy experts said.
"Right now, Iraq, along with getting Osama bin Laden, succeeding in Libya, and restoring the U.S. reputation in the world, is a clear plus for Obama," said David Rothkopf, a former official in the Clinton administration and a national security expert. "He kept his promise and got out. But the story could turn on him very rapidly."
For instance, Rothkopf and other national security experts said, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is swiftly adopting policies that are setting off deep divisions among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites. If Iraq fragments, if Iran starts to assert more visible influence or if a civil war breaks out, "the president could be blamed," Rothkopf said. "He would be remembered not for leaving Iraq but for how he left it."
Already, Obama is coming under political fire. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that Obama's decision to pull U.S. troops out had "unraveled." Appearing on CBS News on Thursday, McCain said that "we are paying a very heavy price in Baghdad because of our failure to have a residual force there," adding that while he was disturbed by what had happened in the past week, he was not surprised.
Administration officials, for their part, countered that it was difficult to see how U.S. troops could have prevented either the political crisis or the coordinated attacks in Iraq.
"These crises before happened when there were tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq, and they all got resolved, but resolved by Iraqis through the political process," said Antony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser. "The test will be whether, with our diplomatic help, they continue to use politics to overcome their differences, pursue power sharing and get to a better place."
So far, the administration is maintaining a hands-off stance in public, even as Biden has privately exhorted Iraqi officials to mend their differences. Several Obama administration officials have been on the phone all week imploring Al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials to quickly work through the charges and countercharges swirling around Al-Maliki's accusation that the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, enlisted personal bodyguards to run a death squad.
Aides said that Biden talked to Al-Maliki; Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni political leader; and Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader. He urged the leaders to organize a meeting of Iraq's top political leaders, from Al-Maliki on down, conveying the message that "you all need to stop hurling accusations at each other through the media and actually sit together and work through your competing concerns," a senior administration official said. That official, like several others, agreed to discuss internal administration thinking only on the condition of anonymity.