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Leaving Iraq Puts More Than U.S. At Risk

This column was written by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

As the debate heats up about whether the United States should set a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, little attention has focused on the effect such a move would have on America's allies in that country. The world has not forgotten America's abandonment of the South Vietnamese and later the Kurds, and our allies must now fear that another abandonment is in the offing. One reason the United States is short on friends throughout the world is that we haven't stood by our allies in the past. The consequence of another hasty retreat must be considered: our reputation will suffer and those who aligned with us in Iraq will pay a heavy price.

The debate over withdrawal comes as America's allies are making important progress. The media has finally begun to notice the Anbar Salvation Front, a collection of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, and others who are united by the common goal of driving al Qaeda from their country. Based in the Anbar province, which was long an al Qaeda stronghold, the Anbar Salvation Front is led by Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, a charismatic tribal leader who has seen many of his family members killed by al Qaeda.

The Anbar Salvation Front provides an Iraqi-based opposition to al Qaeda, and one with local legitimacy. The Front has already yielded four distinct advantages.

First, it has started to provide stability on the ground through emergency response units (ERUs) that serve a policing function. Already, four ERUs consisting of 750 men apiece are operational, and there are enough volunteers to fill out six more — a total of 7,500 men. Although there are conflicting accounts as to how much training ERU personnel will have, high-ranking intelligence sources believe the Anbar Salvation Front is attempting to avoid past blunders in which unprepared police lost public confidence through massive human rights abuses.

Second, the Front has developed an intelligence network that gives U.S. forces unprecedented access to information about insurgent activities. In the past, Sunnis who wanted to report insurgent activity would have to tell U.S. troops directly — and the consequences of being seen with American soldiers can be fatal. Sunnis won't be killed for meeting with Anbar Salvation Front members, who have provided a means for vital information to reach the Americans.

Third, the Anbar Salvation Front has been able to mount a theological challenge to the clerics who have issued rulings in support of al Qaeda's Iraqi jihad. In early April, a committee of 40 prominent religious scholars met in Amman, Jordan to establish the "council of ulema of Iraq." This council hopes to undercut the theological legitimacy that al Qaeda in Iraq claims. Its rulings are designed to undermine those issued by clerics who favor al Qaeda's activities, such as the November 2004 edict issued by a group of Saudi Arabian scholars that lent legitimacy to the jihad in Iraq.

Finally, the Front's activities are extending beyond the Anbar province, as al-Rishawi is forming a national political party known as Iraq Awakening. In April, more than 200 Sunni sheikhs met in Anbar to form this party, which opposes al Qaeda and plans to cooperate with the government in Baghdad. Iraq Awakening will run a slate of candidates in Anbar's upcoming provincial elections and in the next parliamentary balloting in 2009.

In addition to this positive news, wrenchingly bad news has also come out of Iraq. Baghdad has been hit by a number of recent bombings. Diyala province remains under al Qaeda control. In Baquba, the Islamic State of Iraq has assumed many governmental functions and suspected informants are assassinated on a daily basis.

This bad news should not cause us to lose sight of the big picture. The United States now has a commander in Iraq with a concrete strategy. When the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed General David Petraeus, he said that the surge's success probably couldn't be measured until the summer at the earliest. Yet since General Petraeus has taken the reins, daily violence in Baghdad has dropped (even despite the recent rash of high-profile bombings), and he has been able to bolster our allies in the country.

The progress of these allies should not be ignored. The United States has an invaluable asset in al-Rishawi, and the support of his organization may extend beyond Iraq and to the broader Middle East, as this model can be duplicated elsewhere.

Will we abandon our Iraqi allies just as they are beginning to make a concrete difference? They certainly have reason to fear that we will.
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross