If all goes correctly, when this column is read American troops will be gone from the cities of Iraq. Then the calculation must begin as to whether the loss of some half-million to million lives and the ruin of the infrastructure and social structure of Baghdad and much of the rest of the Iraqi nation have served some good purpose.

The United States did this in order to hunt down and hang Saddam Hussein for not possessing weapons of mass destruction (and for other and older grudges). He was a cruel ruler of the Iraqi people, although possibly no crueler than whomever it is that eventually will take his place, if the present parliamentary government fails, as it may.

If that happens, the first of the alternative outcomes possible are that the U.S. will abandon Iraq, withdraw all its forces and leave the country to civil war and chaos. This is what the Nixon administration actually did in Vietnam, professing otherwise, when it no longer had domestic popular support to continue fighting the Vietnamese communists. It abandoned the Vietnamese (and the Cambodians and Laotians, whom the United States had forced into that war) to destinies much worse than if America had never heard of Southeast Asia.

The second possible outcome in Iraq would be that Barack Obama would refuse to abandon George Bush’s war of choice, afraid of Bush Republican accusations of “surrender to terrorism” and “abandonment” of allies. This would mean that he would defend his own war of choice, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the war George Bush chose and Barack Obama condemned.

President Obama might search for a palatable political escape by expanding the U.S. contingent of mercenaries already in Iraq. That might do little for Iraq, but rid him of a public relations embarrassment. One could call this the solution through dissimulation and public deception, as practiced by the Bush-Cheney-Rove White House.

In Iraq, the U.S. has done little effective to reinforce the fragile Shiite-Sunni truce that now exists. This writer has always believed this might prove a problem that solves itself, slowly, if painfully, the two communities having to live together because they have no other place to go to live.

The American invasion and occupation were responsible for the upheaval in the power relationship between the formerly ruling Sunni minority, associated with the tyrant’s regime and the U.S.-outlawed Baath Party, and the formerly oppressed Shiite majority. The latter lives at the frontier of the formerly revolutionary and now despotic Iran, which has been the center of Shiite power and religion since the Middle Ages, and one of the great empires of antiquity.

However, as the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war demonstrated, the Iraqi Shiites are not natural allies of their fellow religionists in Iran, having played a patriotic role in the war of aggression Saddam Hussein launched, with American approval, against the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, because he feared Iraq’s revolutionary threat and expected to defeat an Iran in disarray.

Instead, the Iranians — with the suicidal sacrifice of thousands of teenaged volunteers, the generation from which the present Revolutionary Guard elite derives — fought Iraq to a standstill and then launched an invasion of Iraq, to which Iraq replied with poison gas. The casualties on both sides recall, in proportion to population, those of the 1914-1918 world war in Europe.

That leaves the most ominously unsettled issue in Iraq today, that of Kurdish territorial claims in the oil-rich area around Kirkuk, envenomed by forced expulsion of Kurds from the area by Saddam Hussein, and reciprocal expulsions of Arabs by Kurdish fighters, since America’s sponsorship and protection allowed them to establish — within as yet unrecognized frontiers — a “sovereign” Kurdish autonomous zone, including Kirkuk. This is rich in oil and coveted by foreign oil interests and governments, as well as by whatever government rules Baghdad. Neighboring Turkey and Iran, both historically hostile to an autonomous Kurdistan, especially a rich one, have large stakes in what happens.

On Monday and Tuesday nights, the last in June, there were celebrations in Iraq’s cities of what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured Iraq’s people would be the arrival of national sovereignty at zero hour Wednesday.

The American uniforms have left city streets, but the troops are nearby, ready to play the arbiter’s role when trouble arrives. The combat units are supposed to be gone by the end of next year. All the Americans — except, presumably, the mercenaries, who have been as numerous as the soldiers — will go the following year. The sovereignty question will be answered between now and then. So will the fate of the foreign policy of the Obama presidency be decided.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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