By Joseph Straw
As the sun sets on U.S. military involvement in Iraq, the shadow cast by a neighbor and old enemy - Iran - will grow.
The rogue state already exerts influence in Iraq, political and military. Its Qods Force terror outfit for years supplied insurgents with sophisticated weapons used against U.S. forces and Iraqi counterparts.
U.S. withdrawal likely opens the door to more aggressive meddling by the rogue state, said Adam Mausner of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Fred Wehrey of Rand Corp., who advised U.S.-led forces in Baghdad, warned that further exclusion of tribal or religious sects from Iraq's political processes could renew an insurgency Iran would exploit.
On the upside, the U.S. departure takes American troops out of the firing line as the primary target of Iran's proxy war.
And with the U.S. on the way out, "you are already starting to see resentment of Iran" in the Iraqi public and its political establishment, Wehrey said.
Mausner doubts Iraq will revert to chaos after U.S. troops leave.
Remaining insurgent groups will still be able to carry out isolated, large-scale attacks on the young government, he said.
"But the ability to carry out spectacular attacks is not the ability to inflict the number of casualties we saw a few years ago," Mausner said.
And Iraqis can now fight insurgents themselves thanks to American training in intelligence and counterinsurgency.
A massive U.S. State Department contingent remaining in Iraq will help, Mausner said, as will CIA involvement that's expected to grow over time.
Mausner, however, spots an elephant in the room: while Iraq can police itself, it cannot defend itself. The country has a tiny air force, few armored vehicles - and no advanced weapons.
U.S. forces across the border in Kuwait would be called upon defend Iraq again if needed, Mausner says.
Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.) shares concern about Iranian influence, but hopes the remaining U.S. contingent nearby in Kuwait will keep Tehran at bay, he said.
"Hopefully that will be a sufficient deterrent," King said.