Obama's Iraq Abdication-Deputy Director Marisa Cochrane Sullivan (The Wall Street Journal)

Obama's Iraq Abdication

'Iran and Turkey now have more influence and they are taking advantage of what the U.S. has sacrificed for in Iraq.'



Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama inherited a winning hand in Iraq—and yet his administration has played it like a losing one. I recently returned from three weeks in that country, where I had dozens of meetings with Iraqi officials from across the political spectrum. They agreed on very little, except that the Obama administration is dangerously disengaged from the situation in their country.

"U.S. influence is waning," one senior official told me glumly. "Iran and Turkey now have more influence and they are taking advantage of what the U.S. has sacrificed for in Iraq." Another prominent leader joked that Iraq must have disappeared from every White House map.

Although the president and others have made general statements about long-term plans to continue providing Iraq with nonmilitary assistance, the administration has done little to implement the 2008 U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement, which calls for close partnership in diplomacy, economics, education, culture and security. Asked about the agreement, members of Iraq's two main rival parties—the generally Sunni-backed Iraqiyah List and the Shiite-backed State of Law Coalition—agreed that nothing much is happening.

From my discussions with Iraqis, it is clear that the U.S. still has unused leverage in their country. The Iraqi military, improved though it is, still depends heavily on the U.S. for logistics, training, intelligence and other critical external-defense capabilities. The U.S. can also help Iraq improve relations with its neighbors and emerge from U.N. sanctions left over from the Saddam Hussein era.

More simply, Iraqis recognize that the U.S. is the world's most powerful country and one whose fate is tied to their own. Why, Iraqi leaders asked me, would the U.S. not seek to exercise the leverage it still has? Why would it write off the substantial investment it has made in the country?

Such questions are particularly pressing since U.S. disengagement means ceding ground to Iraq's interventionist neighbors, many of whom don't share the U.S. desire for a strong, stable and democratic Iraq. The most threatening of these neighbors is Iran.

Vice President Joseph Biden and other U.S. officials have argued that Iran didn't play a large role in the formation of Iraq's government last year, but I heard the opposite from Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians. They all described Iran as having played a central role in pressuring Shiite groups to fall in line behind Prime Minister Maliki. "This government was formed in Iran," said one senior Iraqi official whose view was shared by many others.

Iran's hand is perhaps most visible in the work of its armed Iraqi proxies. These groups—Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Promised Day Brigade—are directly supported by the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. They continue to support terrorist and paramilitary groups throughout Iraq that target both Americans and Iraqis.

These groups have stepped up their attacks in recent months. Fourteen U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in June, the highest monthly total of combat-related deaths since June 2008, when there were nearly three times as many U.S. troops in Iraq. More than half of these deaths were caused by improvised rocket-assisted mortars that contain improvised explosive devices in their warheads. Such mortars first surfaced in 2007 and 2008, but they were used infrequently and were not constructed or employed well. This has since changed. "They're getting more sophisticated, more lethal, more precise in targeting," a U.S. military official told me.

Iran has also increased the flow of weapons to Iraqi militants, with the Qods Force even crossing into Iraq to re-arm its surrogates. U.S. and Iraqi troops have discovered hundreds of weapons caches in the last six months. They have contained weapons of substantial size, range and lethality—and which could be traced directly back to Iran. Some of these arms were made as recently as 2010.

The attacks by Iran's proxies are designed to make it more unappealing for U.S. forces to stay in Iraq after this year. They are also meant to create the illusion that militants are driving U.S. forces out, to pressure the U.S. in retaliation for its Syria policy, and to convey to Iraqis that Iran can stir trouble if it so desires.

All this comes as U.S. and Iraqi officials debate the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Both sides recognize that Iraqi Security Forces will need training and assistance beyond this year in areas such as air defense, intelligence, logistics and naval defense. Most Iraqi leaders privately admit that they favor having some U.S. troops remain in Iraq for these training purposes. But domestic political realities in Baghdad and Washington endanger any new terms of agreement. Though Mr. Maliki recently admitted that Iraqi forces will need continued U.S. help, he has been unwilling to decisively drive negotiations.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have some fundamental differences over how to move forward, specifically over whether the Iraqi parliament would need to approve any change in the status of U.S. troops. Some American officials have discussed a residual U.S. force of 10,000 troops, but this number is driven largely by political calculations in Washington and Baghdad, not by military recommendations about desired capabilities and requirements. Recent attacks by Iranian-backed extremist groups, meanwhile, have further complicated the negotiations, just as Tehran has hoped.

It is in U.S. interests to keep a meaningful troop presence in Iraq to continue the training and professionalization of Iraqi forces, to conduct counterterrorism missions alongside Iraqis, to counter malign Iranian influence, to contain ethnic strife in the disputed areas of northern Iraq, and to bolster Iraq's nascent democracy.

Time is running out, as the current deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops is Dec. 31. For months, U.S. officials refused to begin negotiations until the Iraqis "asked" for a revised agreement. American policy makers thus ignored the lessons learned in negotiating the previous security agreement and in forming the current government, during which extensive behind-the-scenes talks preceded any formal requests or decisions. Only this summer, after it became clear that no Iraqi request was forthcoming, did U.S. diplomats initiate private discussions with Baghdad, the results of which are far from clear.

Failing to sign a new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement would redound to Iran's great benefit. The Obama administration has a fleeting opportunity that it cannot afford to squander.

Ms. Sullivan is deputy director of the Institute for the Study of War.