Iraqi tensions are policy, political challenge for Obama

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 20, 2011 6:39pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Iraq war may be over for the U.S. military, but it may not be for the Iraqis - or for the U.S. government, as it tries to avert sectarian strife following the departure of American troops.

U.S. officials are on edge because of the Iraqi government's decision to issue an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni politician.

The announcement of the arrest warrant on Monday, one day after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal, has revived fears that sectarian tensions between the country's Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities may erupt anew.

It could hardly have come at a worse moment for U.S. President Barack Obama as he has sought in a series of appearances to mark the end of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq nearly nine years after the invasion ordered by former President George W. Bush.

In the latest such event, Obama on Tuesday took part in a ceremony at a military base near Washington at which the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq was formally returned home.

Obama's Republican political opponents in the U.S. Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have argued that the decision to bring all U.S. troops home by the end of this year - even though that date originally was set by Bush - had aggravated the chances of instability in Iraq.

Politics aside, the stark revival of sectarian tensions at the highest level of Iraqi politics appears to pose a fresh challenge for U.S. policymakers in a strategic oil-rich country.

"One of the concerns that people have had for some time is that without a large U.S. presence, the likelihood of sectarian score-settling in Iraq would increase," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Alterman said that he did not know how much evidence there may be to support the arrest warrant against Hashemi, who has been accused of suspected ties to assassinations and bombings.

The Iraqi interior ministry showed taped confessions of men it claimed were members of Hashemi's security detail and who said they had been paid by his office to carry out killings.

"Whether this represents sectarian score-settling or straight-forward criminal investigation is not clear at all," Alterman said.

"The danger is that a straight-forward investigation would be perceived as score-settling and hurtle the country toward deep spasms of violence abetted by external parties with ties to the different sectarian communities," he added, alluding to neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

WHITE HOUSE SEEKS FAIR TREATMENT

The White House called on the Iraqi government to handle the matter in line with international norms, an appeal that appeared to reflect unspoken concerns that the case could be politically motivated or conducted in a less than impartial manner.

"We're obviously concerned about this," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, noting that U.S. officials had been in touch with Iraqi leaders amid concern the step may fuel sectarian tensions now that U.S. troops have withdrawn.

"We urge the Iraqi authorities charged with this responsibility to conduct their investigations into alleged terrorist activities in accordance with international legal norms and full respect for Iraqi law," he added.

"We continue to urge all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue," Carney said.

The arrest warrant threatens Iraq's fragile power-sharing deal among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs who have struggled to overcome tensions just a few years after sectarian violence pushed the nation virtually into civil war.

U.S. officials carefully avoided commenting on whether they thought the allegations had merit or whether Hashemi may have been targeted for political purposes, but analysts raised questions on both scores.

"I am skeptical of the allegations," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst who specializes in national security and defense policy, stressing that he did not have detailed information on which to base a judgment.

O'Hanlon said he saw a significant danger that sectarian strife could erupt if Hashemi's eventual prosecution were perceived to be politically motivated, as seems likely.

"I think there is a great risk, especially because the prime minister has tried to use the courts before to serve his own agenda, for example trying to get candidates disqualified two years ago before the parliamentary elections," the analyst said, referring to Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Obama's political opponents this week have renewed criticism of the troop withdrawal, which the president ordered after negotiations failed with the Iraqi government on a follow-on U.S. force of several thousand troops.

"The risk of increasing sectarian violence following the president's decision to withdraw all U.S. forces has always been real, which is one of the reasons our commanders recommended a credible force remain in Iraq after the end of the year," said a spokesman for House of Representatives Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican.

"But in the end the Iraqis will have to want security and liberty for all of their citizens as much as we do, and shape their own destiny," the spokesman, Claude Chafin, said.

(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Will Dunham)

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