Just before leaving for Baghdad recently, I spoke by phone to my Iraqi driver Salam, who was recently released from prison.
What he told me haunted me during my visit. It made me question what kind of Iraqi regime will emerge after U.S. troops exit by the end of 2011.
Salam spent two years in jail on false charges brought by relatives of Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. These militiamen, who were killing Salam's neighbors, were arrested after he tipped U.S. troops. When American soldiers left Baghdad, the killers used contacts inside Iraq's Shiite-dominated army to get Salam -- and his two teenage sons -- jailed.
The three were finally freed by an honest judge. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has now made a political deal with the Sadrists in order to finally form a government, nine months after Iraqi elections. The deal, brokered by Iran, required that large numbers of Mahdi Army thugs -- like those Salam fingered -- be freed from prison. This deal resurrects a fiercely anti-American group that battled U.S. forces until it was routed in 2008.
With Sadrists on the loose, Salam began receiving death threats. He told me he was going to flee Iraq (to a country that, out of concern for his safety, I won't name). No one answered when I phoned him in Baghdad.
U.S. officials profess not to be overly worried about the re-emergence of the Sadrists, or Iranian influence. "Iran is inevitably going to be a player, but not calling the shots," one told me. As a hedge against Tehran, the United States is working to improve ties between Shiite-led Iraq and its Sunni Arab neighbors.
Yet Iranian meddling, and the anti-Americanism it stirs, are bound to affect the long-term U.S. role in the country. There has been no substantial discussion yet between al-Maliki and U.S. officials about whether any residual U.S. troops might remain in Iraq, even as advisers, after 2011. Under domestic and Iranian political pressure, al-Maliki may be reluctant to consider the idea.
Many of the U.S. military's training functions will be taken over by the vastly expanded State Department operation in Baghdad. It will include an Office of Security Cooperation staffed by military and civilian personnel, including private contractors. Similar offices exist in the U.S. Embassies in Ankara and Cairo.
And the U.S. Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq calls for expanded cooperation in civilian areas, including trade, education and culture, with exchanges of students, young leaders and museum exhibits.
However, in a bad geographical neighborhood, where neighbors are keen to meddle in Iraqi affairs, a strong security relationship between Washington and Baghdad is essential. U.S. troops now mediate between Kurds and Arabs in the north. They train Iraqis to guard against external threats to their territory, including building an air defense network.
Here's my nightmare: As Americans turn inward, the White House may lose interest in pursuing strong ties with Baghdad, and Tehran will fill the vacuum. Secular Iraqis who believed U.S. promises, like Salam, will flee as Muslim religious parties solidify power. A fractious government will fuel enough violence to make Iraqis yearn for a new dictator.
"Where we are today has been paid for in blood," a sacrifice shared by Iraqi and U.S. forces, said the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, this month in Baghdad. We must not allow those shaky gains to be squandered.