President Obama’s decision to shift the U.S. military chief for the Middle East, Gen. David H. Petraeus, to focus exclusively on Afghanistan highlights what politicians, analysts and some U.S. military officers here say is a serious drift in policy toward Iraq.
Iraqi officials said they had detected a lack of direction even before Obama tapped Petraeus to replace his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who stepped down this week after he and his team made disparaging comments about U.S. civilian leaders.
The Iraqis describe U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U.S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy’s single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here. Some U.S. military officers and Western analysts have also criticized what they see as a failure to think beyond the planned drawdown to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. The lack of focus may leave an opening for Iraq’s neighbor and the United States’ rival — Iran.
Petraeus made his name crafting the strategy that helped calm Iraq’s sectarian strife, and was then promoted to head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing American military operations throughout the region. His reassignment to focus exclusively on Afghanistan, which the Obama administration regards as the most daunting conflict it faces, could hasten a further downgrading of attention to Iraq.
“Afghanistan is heating up. With such a high [profile] U.S. general, he will be sucking all resources to Afghanistan that he brought to Iraq,” said a senior U.S. military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It does affect the balance of things in Iraq right now.”
Iraqi officials are eager to take back control of their country. But some worry that the U.S. administration is blinding itself to the need for continued engagement.
“They deal with and treat Iraq as an ordinary country,” said a senior Iraqi official said, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is all wishful.”
Iraq still is plagued by armed groups and the constant threat of violence. Chronic shortages of electricity this summer have led to widespread protests and forced a government minister to resign. A stalemate over the formation of the next government could drag well into fall.
The United States for years played a role in all aspects of Iraqi governance, including developing basic services, helping revive the economy and providing security. In 2008, the U.S. negotiated the transfer of security responsibility back to the Iraqi government.
Iraqi officials cite instances that they say showed the Americans being caught by surprise: A veto by the country’s Sunni vice president last fall delayed elections by two months, and an attempt by Shiite politician Ahmad Chalabi, once a U.S. favorite, to bar more than 500 candidates from running in parliamentary elections that reignited sectarian tensions.
One Iraqi official said the U.S. Embassy, led by Ambassador Christopher Hill, appears to be hindered by a lack of attention from the White House.
“Hill is a very good man, bright man. He has learned a lot over the last year, but Iraq doesn’t work by diplomatic books. It needs something more than diplomacy, but his mission has been defined,” the official said. “I don’t believe they comprehend the challenges.”
Iraq policy is under the domain of Vice President Joe Biden. White House officials say Biden chairs monthly meetings on Iraq in the White House situation room, and that both he and Obama receive regular reports in the president’s daily brief, a secret document provided by top officials.
But Obama has not chaired a meeting on Iraq since last year, and according to one prominent Iraqi political figure, many Iraqis are worried that Biden does not have the clout to coordinate U.S. policy.
Iraq’s political class complains of what it sees as often flat-footed responses and a newfound aloofness from Washington. “We don’t have a feeling for Mr. Obama, honestly. We don’t know him,” said Mithal Alusi, a lawmaker in the outgoing parliament who has advocated close ties with the U.S.
Some analysts see risks in a reduced U.S. role.
“The pressure to shift resources to Afghanistan is so great that Washington’s Iraq strategy seems to be based on a song and a prayer,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group think tank.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute think tank warns, “Terrorist groups and the Iranians are testing the waters and seeing what they can get away with. And if they discover that the response is going to be apathy from the United States and our allies, they’re going to continue.
“The perception everywhere [is] that we’re in retreat,” she said.
U.S. officials in Washington acknowledge that the Iraq mission is winding down, and often add that they expect the Obama administration to get credit for executing an orderly exit. A senior administration official said in an interview that the withdrawal should win favor in the Muslim world.
“As they see us coming out, this is going to give us a boost,” the official said.
Embassy and military officials in Baghdad disputed the perception that the United States was not engaged in laying the groundwork for a close long-term relationship with Iraq. In a joint statement, they said they were “focused on achieving the vision of an enduring strategic partnership between the United States and a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq.”
They cited budding ties in areas such as healthcare and agriculture, and said they were fostering business relations as well.
But the senior U.S. military officer said he saw few signs that the embassy or military were concentrating on a long-term strategy.
“Personally, I think [the military] is adrift,” the officer said. “Everyone is spending more time drawing down rather than executing policy…. People aren’t thinking about new programs, policies or a legacy.” Embassy officials were not reaching out to Iraqi leaders the way they once did, he said.
Senior Iraqi politicians say they feel that little actually has been done in developing the foundations of a relationship based on politics, business and cultural exchanges.
“We hear about the responsible withdrawal of Obama, but not a lot of things are happening with soft power, and that is creating a vacuum of Western presence, if you like,” said former Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie. “We were hoping to have relationships [in the field of] culture, education, economics, science, agriculture and industry with the U.S. and U.K. But it is not happening with the same speed that we are implementing the [withdrawal].”
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.