Dear President-elect Obama:

Among the first challenges you’ll face when you take office is how to handle the Iraq drawdown.

You’ve lucked out. A sharp shift in U.S. strategy, along with a decision by Iraqi Sunnis to turn against al-Qaida, has led to an amazing downturn in Iraq violence. A surge in Iraqi nationalism pushed the Bush administration to sign a security agreement with Baghdad that calls for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Never mind that you were attacked for proposing a withdrawal timeline.

Given all you have on your plate, the temptation will be to consider the Iraq war over. The U.S. public is tired of Iraq. Media coverage of the story is declining, as American broadcast networks and newspapers shut their Baghdad bureaus for financial reasons. Your Democratic base will press you to stick to your 16-month withdrawal timeline, and your military focus is already shifting to Kabul.

But Iraq isn’t over. Too many Americans and far too many Iraqis have died for us to pull out with undue haste and watch Iraq slide backward.

Yes, the nature of our involvement in Iraq must shift substantially. But how you handle that shift will be as crucial as how you handle the war in Afghanistan. So may I offer four points worth considering as you plan a drawdown from Iraq.

First, expect the unexpected. This is always true in the Middle East, but it is especially true in a state as fragile as Iraq.

Things look quiet now. But sleeper cells of al-Qaida in Iraq or hard-line Baathists are waiting to strike as the Americans exit and will try to assassinate key Iraqis. Suicide bombers are still targeting civilians.

The good news is that these killers can no longer set off the kind of mass sectarian killing they sparked in the past. Iraqis of all sects now grasp that this type of killing is meant to provoke them. An example is the recent bombing that killed more than 70 people in a popular restaurant near the volatile city of Kirkuk. It was intended to provoke revenge killings. Instead, local Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Christians all stood together against the terrorists.

But such bombings undercut public faith in their government and keep the country on edge. So U.S. forces must continue to assist Iraqis in going after terrorists and trying to prevent bombing outrages. That means continued U.S. training of Iraqi counterterrorism units, along with their army and police.

Second, be prepared for the complexities of ceding control of security to Iraqis.

Iraqi officials want to shrink the American “footprint” quickly – by pulling U.S. troops out of cities and making them less intrusive into Iraqi lives. “I believe the time has come to wean ourselves of the American dependency syndrome,” says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, national security adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We feel we are indebted and are not ungrateful. But we want to be left alone to make our decisions and mistakes.”

Yet, despite much improvement of Iraqi security forces, it is unclear how quickly they can handle full security responsibility. In private, Iraqi officials talk about the need for a measured transition, with U.S. backup and trainers still present. “We have to work carefully,” says one Iraqi official, “to see that when we are thrown into the deep end we don’t drown.”

So, ideally, the U.S. drawdown should start slowly and pick up speed in 2010. Iraq will hold a series of elections in 2009 that require good security to succeed.

Third, the psychological aspects of the transition will be important. The U.S. military comes to joint meetings on the transition with piles of heavy briefing books, yet the Iraqis may appear with minimum preparation. However, decisions must be arrived at jointly.

At the end of July, Iraqis will vote in a referendum on the security agreement and the three-year timetable. Any major incident between Iraqis and U.S. forces could have a negative influence on the referendum. A worst-case scenario would be a “no” vote that leads to a rushed exit of U.S. troops.

Fourth, it’s time to shift the U.S. focus from our military ties with Iraq and toward a civilian partnership. Last summer, we signed another accord with Baghdad that has gotten little attention, the Strategic Framework Agreement. It calls for long-term U.S.-Iraq cooperation on economics, culture, science and education.

“We want to create a different culture in this country,” al-Rubaie, the security adviser, says. U.S. technical and economic assistance could help decide whether Iraq escapes the curse of the petro-states, with their narrow-based economies that encourage dictatorial rulers and anti-American postures.

“Why should Iraqis see the United States only through a military and security eye?” asks Iraq’s thoughtful Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. “We have to make use of these three years so people can see investment, trade, scholarships, and can sense the benefits” of a strong relationship with America.

This approach should be right up your alley, President-elect Obama. In the end, the civilian relationship you build with Baghdad could be the key to whether Iraq succeeds.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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