The withdrawal dynamic is shifting Iraq's political plates

The best way to end a war is to forget it. As the Afghan conflict erupts in all its predictable horror, Iraq slithers towards forgetfulness. The question is how to hasten it on its way. Next week Barack Obama arrives in Europe, where he is lauded as the next American president. As such he carries an alarming burden of expectation, central to which is his pledge to end the occupation of Iraq.

He has always been opposed to this war, writing in the New York Times this week that Iraq "posed no threat and had nothing to do with 9/11". He promises to withdraw American forces "within 16 months", though he has reasonably added that the timetable may change as a result of his forthcoming visit to Baghdad - hardly the derided "flip-flop".

Only die-hard neocons (now including Obama's opponent, John McCain) still believe a US army should remain on Iraqi soil indefinitely. Where strategy diverges is over the modality of withdrawal. Central to this is the interpretation of the year-old "surge" of General Petraeus, whose ability to snatch good news from a catalogue of catastrophe has elevated him to the rank of genius.

The surge is much misread. It has involved pouring 20,000 extra troops into forward operating bases in central and western Baghdad, mostly Sunni areas. As a result, a formerly mixed city has been segregated into fortified enclaves as in Jerusalem and Belfast. Neighbourhoods have been flooded with armour, and soldiers embedded in each community. Not surprisingly, there has been a relative decline in lawlessness and violence, though they remain devastatingly high.

As long as the surge is judged by casualties, its success will be measurable. But assessment is confused because it coincides with a different innovation, the "awakening" in the Sunni Anbar province, initiated by the US marines a full year before the surge. It stimulated a shift in local power that has brought some stability to Sunni Iraq and diminished the running Shia-Sunni civil war.

In an extensive survey of withdrawal options in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the American Middle East analyst Steven Simon points out that the awakening resulted from a realisation on the part of Sunni tribal leaders that they were losing local control to incoming al-Qaida units, who presented themselves as Sunni saviours against the Americans and Shia security forces.

Fed by a revulsion against al-Qaida, Sunni leaders eventually turned to the Americans, who responded with money and weapons to the former Sunni militias, known as "Sons of Iraq" and now numbering some 90,000. Fighters received $360 a month and a local chief could earn $100,000 a year in skim for fielding a unit of 200 men. Some $200m from American taxpayers vanished into Ramadi alone in just six months of 2007.

But such astronomical sums were not enough. Crucial to the Sunnis' change of tack was that they knew the Americans were leaving. They saw Washington moving towards the Democrats and withdrawal. "They talked about it all the time," recalls an American commander, also reported in Foreign Affairs, who told them: "We don't know when we are leaving, but we don't have much time."

Analysis in the latest Military Review concurs: "A growing concern that the US would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenceless against al-Qaida and the Iranian-supported militias made the younger leaders open to our overtures." In other words, while the surge yielded important reductions in crime, it was the awakening and its reading of American politics that was politically crucial.

At this point the strategists diverge. To the fast-withdrawal group, it was the threat of self-reliance that yielded results. It forced the Sunnis to reassert themselves against al-Qaida, rebuild militias and negotiate more confidently with the Shias round the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Progress depended on the dynamic of withdrawal for its bite.

Further evidence is drawn from Basra in the south. For all the controversy over Britain's withdrawal to base, it worked. The intervention by Iraqi forces in April brought home to local leaders that they were on their own against the Mahdists, and had better fight or hack deals.

The fast-withdrawers want this principle extended to the rest of Iraq. To them "unconditional disengagement" is the only goad to political reform. Maliki must reach an oil revenue deal with the Kurds and Sunnis, resolve the status of Kirkuk and somehow incorporate the regional militias into his Iraqi army. At present, with an American blank cheque on his desk and a Republican candidate promising to stay "for a hundred years", Maliki has no incentive to do any of these, even if he fobs off his radicals with a demand for a "withdrawal timetable" and the ending of the green zone.

Against this strategy stands the slow-withdrawal group. They see the surge remaining in place, notionally conditional on pressing Maliki to conciliate the Kurds and Sunnis. Such "conditional engagement" means a continued American presence to "shock-absorb" change, and a continued splurge of aid. Above all, the gains of the surge must not be put at risk by precipitate withdrawal.

In reality this is a static strategy that denies the dynamic incentive of unconditional withdrawal. Ardent advocates admit it has not worked so far, and its bluff can always be called by those crying "After us, the deluge", including the Babel of concerns with a financial interest in a US presence. The evidence of the past two years is that Maliki and his colleagues, awash with corruption, won't negotiate the necessary alliances until they know the occupation is emphatically ending. Conditional engagement means indefinite engagement.

The Iraq war was never going to end until Americans tired of it. Obama embodies that tiredness. He wants to send more troops to Afghanistan, and has been told he cannot have two wars at once. Now he has a strategy for withdrawal, and evidence as to how it might work. The awakening remains high risk. Some see arming the militias as a reckless prelude to resumed civil war, while leaving Maliki to fend for himself might just see him fall.

But the British withdrawal from Basra, the segregation of Baghdad and the awakening in Anbar have shown that imminent withdrawal concentrates minds and shifts political plates. It has begun the partitioning of Iraq into self-securing provinces, and has formed power structures on which new leadership can be built. In this desperate country, still among the most dangerous on earth, disengagement's hour has come. Obama is its harbinger.

Simon Jenkins