The testimonies of General David Petraeus, commander of the American forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, to the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees earlier this week have thrust the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq to the centre of the presidential campaign.
The prime purpose of the hearings was to evaluate the effectiveness of the US troop surge, launched 15 months ago, to reduce violence in Iraq, and examine the prospect of lowering American military presence in Iraq. "The progress, while real, is fragile and reversible," reported Petraeus. So, once the additional five combat brigades deployed in Iraq are withdrawn by July, he plans a freeze, maintaining the US military presence at 140,000.
The fragile state of Iraq's security stems from the malevolent intentions of Iran, contended Petraeus. The greatest immediate threat to security came from the Tehran-backed "special groups" of Shiite radicals. Over the longer term there was also the prospect of the resurgence of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. Hence, the need for a post-surge pause before contemplating any further drawdown of US troops.
Ambassador Crocker concurred, stressing the evil designs of Iran.
The Bush administration is obsessed with Iran and sees it as a greater threat than the Sunni al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. That switch of a primary enemy, however, has complicated the situation in Iraq.
The Sunni al-Qaida is part of a pan-national movement, which does not have the backing of any sovereign state, and it has lost much of the standing acquired initially by opposing the occupation by an infidel power.
Ignoring the basic fact that Sunni Arabs numbered only a third of the Shiite Arabs in Iraq, al-Qaida pursued relentless massacre of Shiite civilians which turned off most Iraqis. Its policy of "if you are not with us, then you are against us" towards fellow-Sunnis alienated most Sunnis as well, particularly in the Anbar province, which occupies nearly a third of Iraq.
These blunders by al-Qaida in Mesopotamia provided the American policymakers an opportunity to neutralise it. They offered guns and money to the Sunni tribal leaders to switch sides. The tribal shaikhs set up local "Awakening" councils, consisting of men - called Sons of Iraq - armed with weapons supplied by the Pentagon. There are now 91,000 Sons of Iraq, armed and paid by the Pentagon, manning neighbourhood-watch systems and protecting government properties.
The relationship of the Sunni Sons of Iraq with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki remains ill-defined. So too does their long-term future: Will they be absorbed fully or partially in the Iraqi security system run by Shiite ministers and officials, or will they be given jobs in the civilian sector?
Tehran watched quietly as the Bush administration, for its own reasons, overthrew Saddam Hussein. A sovereign state, Iran has the largest population in the region, with 90 per cent of Iranians being Shiite. It is four times the size of Iraq, shares land and water borders with nine countries, and has a coast that runs the length of the Persian Gulf and part of the Arabian Sea, not to mention the landlocked Caspian Sea. It also has the second largest reserves of natural gas and conventional oil in the world, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2007.
Yet, for half a century preceding the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iran's regional ambitions were blocked by Iraq.
In the eight-year war between the two neighbours, started by Saddam's 1980 invasion of Iran, US President Ronald Reagan maintained a pretense of neutrality. In reality, he provided covert support to the Iraqi dictator, while some officials in his administration sold weapons to Iran to see its war with Iraq continue.