With Iran poised to move, should US be leaving Iraq?

Does anyone remember Iraq?

As the United States moves toward withdrawing its last 46,000 troops from that country by the end of 2011, Iraq has become a black hole. It is the place Americans want to forget and the media hardly cover.

No wonder. Although violence is way down since the mid-2000s, there’s been a resurgence of car bombs and sectarian killings. The Iraqi government barely functions, and the country ranks nearly at the bottom of the Transparency International corruption index (175th out of 178, just above Afghanistan).

Who wants to remember a war fought for reasons proven wrong, a war for which the Bush administration quit Afghanistan and turned victory there into near-defeat? Who wants to recall a war that cost the lives of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians — while boosting Iran’s influence in the region and slashing ours?

And yet, that expanding Iranian influence should grab our attention. Unchecked, it will reverse Iraq’s slim democratic gains and restoke Iraq’s sectarian violence, while threatening our broader interests in the region. Is this how we want our misguided Iraq venture to end?

As the United States leaves, Tehran is expanding its sway over Baghdad, beyond the normal influence of a neighbor that shares a long border.

Iran is sending a clear message to Washington that it intends to exert primacy in Baghdad. June was the bloodiest month for the U.S. military since 2008, and U.S. officials blame the 15 troop deaths on Shiite insurgents who obtained deadly weapons from Iranian sources.

Moreover, Tehran appears to have Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a headlock. Once a politician who showed independence from Tehran, the unpopular Maliki has become dependent on an Iranian-backed Shiite group led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who spends most of his time in the Iranian city of Qom.

Even more disturbing is the decision by Maliki and his Dawa Party to submit to the religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahroudi, a hard-line Iranian cleric, rather than to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Shahroudi endorses the Iranian system of rule by a supreme cleric, while Sistani draws a line between mosque and state.

Maliki has facilitated the flow of huge numbers of Iranian pilgrims (no doubt including many Iranian intelligence agents) to the holy Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, where Iran is building numerous hotels and restaurants.

This week, Iranian First Vice President Mohammed Reza Rahimi is visiting Baghdad, and has signed six agreements to boost economic, health, technological, and cultural ties with Iraqis. He is accompanied by scores of eager Iranian businessmen.

Iraq already depends on Iran for about 10 percent of desperately needed electric power (U.S. inability to help Iraq produce enough electricity, despite many aid projects, has bewildered Iraqis). More Iranian power projects are on tap.

Most Iraqis don’t want to fall into Iran’s orbit. Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims share Iran’s faith, but they are Arabs, not Persians. Moreover, discontent with Maliki has grown; he has veered toward one-man rule (encouraged by Iran?) and failed to carry out his promises to minority Sunnis.

Iraqis fear they could once again become the proxy battleground between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, with each side fueling its chosen sectarian militias.

Is there anything the United States can, or should, do?

The administration (and key Republicans) would like to keep 8,500 to 10,000 troops in Iraq at least during 2012 to continue training Iraqi forces (and send the message that the country isn’t being abandoned to Iran’s ayatollahs).

Many Sunni and Kurdish leaders, along with some Shiites, want a continued U.S. presence to keep Iran at bay (U.S. troops have also kept tensions down between Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds in northern Iraq).

Of course, Americans are even more weary of this war than of the Afghan conflict. And any extension of U.S. troops would require a request from Maliki, a Shiite, which he looks unlikely to make.

Yet, in the year of the Arab Spring, I’m not so certain Maliki can last, despite Iran. (His forces have brutally repressed Iraqi youth protesting corruption.) If other Iraqi forces request us to remain, or Maliki changes his mind, I think the administration should acquiesce.

Americans forget, or never knew, what terrible suffering this war inflicted on Iraqis — in a war that also badly wounded us. To have paid these costs just to hand Iraq over to Iran’s clerics would not just threaten our security. It would be obscene. We must remember Iraq’s history as we decide what to do next.

• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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