For the second Friday in a row, tens of thousands of protesters across Iraq took to the streets on March 4 demanding improved government services, better paying jobs, and end to corruption. Fourteen were killed during the "Day of Rage" on February 25. More demonstrations are likely, as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki struggles to meet protesters' demands and hold his government together.
These events come as the United States is set to withdraw all of its military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. Recently, however, the US secretary of defence Robert Gates said an "additional presence" may be required beyond December.
We were recently in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, also the scene of recent demonstrations, to assess the political climate. Our conclusion is that a stable, federal and democratic Iraq, allied with the United States, cannot be taken for granted - especially now. The US should consider a five-part, post-combat strategy for Iraq that places greater emphasis on governance and reform, redefines the security relationship, more effectively incorporates the Kurdistan region in its planning, resolves the dispute over hydrocarbons, and integrates Iraq into a regional security structure.
First, the US must work with Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to focus more urgently on reform. The nine-month process that it took to form a government, a world record of slow progress, was mostly about dividing the spoils among Iraq's leaders, and not much if anything about governance. Iraqi protesters - Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - are not seeking regime change, but are demanding accountability for the lack of security and services.
There is also concern that Mr al Maliki's centralisation of power could threaten Iraq's fragile democracy. The prime minister has met these protests with force, but has also taken notice of demands for reform and given his ministers 100 days to improve their performance.
Second, the US should approach the Kurdistan region as more of a strategic partner in support of good governance, federalism and regional security. There are demands for reform within the region, as there are throughout Iraq, that must be addressed. Demonstrations in Sulaimaniya since mid-February resulted in five protesters killed and 150 wounded.
The Kurdistan Regional Government is trying to seize the initiative for reform. Its success is critical, as the Kurds are key to Iraq's future as a federal, rather than highly centralised, state. The Kurdistan region is both a counterweight within Iraq to the ascendant power of radical religious parties, many with close ties to outsiders, and a reliable American ally in combatting terrorism.
Third, and related, the US should help settle the long-standing dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds over an oil law and the sharing of hydrocarbon revenues. This issue has bedevilled Iraq's politics, fueled acrimony between Arabs and Kurds, and slowed Iraq's development of its energy resources.
Baghdad needs Kurdish exports to meet expectations for a substantial increase in exports above the current figure of approximately 1.8 million barrels per day. Months of haggling between Baghdad and Irbil only recently produced a stop-gap agreement allowing exports of 100,000 barrels per day from the Kurdistan region. Kurdish leaders say they could increase that to 300,000 barrels in a short time. Turkey and Kuwait also stand to benefit from Iraqi pipeline networks and infrastructure projects.
The recent discovery of a gas field in the region estimated at up to 12.3 trillion cubic feet (350 billion cubic metres) gives the matter further urgency; this find could render a number of pipeline projects feasible, including Nabucco also known as the Turkey-Austrian pipeline.
Fourth, and even more complicated for both Baghdad and Washington, is the question of a US military presence after December. Many Iraqi politicians believe a continued presence is necessary, but are unwilling to say so publicly. This needs to be handled with care; US bases are generally not a winning issue in populist Iraqi politics.
A small US force would continue the "transitional" mission in which US troops are currently engaged: advising and assisting Iraq's security forces, including in counterterrorism operations; providing air support; and protecting US civilians. The message that the US and Iraq are partners in security would send a strong signal within Iraq and to the region.
Fifth, the US needs to intensify its efforts at regional diplomacy. Iraq cannot be separated from US interests in Iran, Syria, Turkey and the Gulf. Iraq can be either an opportunity for regional diplomacy and conflict resolution, or a zone for proxy warfare among Iraq's neighbours at Iraq's expense.
The country is not immune to the popular demands for change and reform sweeping the region. A stable Iraq showing some capacity for internal cohesion, self-governance and accountability, at peace with its neighbours, is vital to America's interests in the Middle East. Iraq cannot be the forgotten country.
The end of the US combat mission is good news, but Iraq's transition is incomplete, as the demonstrations show. Iraqi politicians must pivot from calculations of power to programmes for reform. The Obama administration also needs to partner with a sceptical Congress intent on budget cuts to ensure that the required assistance is forthcoming. It would be a tragedy if the US lost Iraq because of a lack of resources or if its attention was elsewhere.