President Obama's surprise layover in Baghdad on his way home from Europe and Turkey serves as a gloomy reminder that the war he opposed and then inherited isn't over yet. While the president has sought to shift focus to Afghanistan, Iraq has seen a spike in violence, including a series of bombings in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods of the capital that killed at least 46 people in the last two days. At meetings with American soldiers and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to draw down most of the 139,000 troops still stationed in Iraq by August 2010, and he rightly noted that the solution to the country's problems is political, not military.
The Bush administration's U.S. troop "surge" helped reduce violence last year with the goal of allowing political reconciliation between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority. Amid the relative calm, blast walls came down in many areas, stores reopened and a semblance of normal life returned to the capital. But Iraqi leaders failed to take advantage of the lull to resolve issues of power-sharing and the division of oil revenues underlying the violence. Last week, they seemed to be moving backward, as key U.S. allies on both sides faced off in what could be a harbinger of life after the United States' withdrawal. Maliki's Shiite-led government, backed by U.S. troops, arrested a leader of the Sons of Iraq movement of former Sunni insurgents that had negotiated a cease-fire with the U.S. military in exchange for integration of 20,000 of their fighters into the Iraqi security forces and help finding jobs for tens of thousands of others. Sons of Iraq leaders complained that the government was not honoring the deal and, after the arrest of Adel Mashadani, took up their guns in fierce street combat and threatened to realign with Al Qaeda in Iraq.
More than six years have passed since former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned the Bush administration that invading Iraq could mean, "you break it, you own it." And yet U.S. forces cannot stay forever to safeguard the country's stability. Violence and dust storms prevented Obama from visiting the U.S.-secured Green Zone this week, so he spoke from Camp Victory, next to Baghdad International Airport, where he reiterated his determination to bring the occupation to an end. "It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis," Obama said. "They need to take responsibility for their country." As the date for the drawdown of U.S. forces approaches, Obama should use his leverage to press Maliki to incorporate the former Sunni insurgents into the security forces and political system. Without political reconciliation, Iraq will never have security and long-term stability.