This Commentary was originally published as an op-ed in The National May 31, 2010.

‘What does the US want from Iraq?” This was the question of a university educator during a large gathering of Iraqi politicians, students, journalists and activists we met during a 10-day trip to Baghdad and Kurdistan sponsored by Washington’s Stimson Center earlier this month.

The answer, whatever it might be, is a major preoccupation among Iraqis, almost as much as forming a new government. We found Arabs and Kurds alike who were deeply worried about Iran and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia filling a power vacuum and controlling the fate of the country after the US leaves.

Iraqis begged for the US to remain heavily involved in the country’s security, and interfere more – not less – in decision-making when Iraqis reach an impasse. Iraqis fear that the US has no long-term strategy for future relations between the two countries, and, if it does, that it has no idea of how to achieve it.

These views stand in contrast to those American officials in Baghdad who noted that the US seeks a “normal” relationship with Iraq, based on the assumption that the US will leave behind “an Iraq that provides no safe haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant”, as the US president Barack Obama noted in his graduation address at the United States Military Academy on May 22.

For their part, American military officials stressed that the US views the withdrawal of most of its combat troops in August – and the final withdrawal in 2011 – as merely a “transition” from one form of American involvement to another.

Indeed, the US has detailed plans to continue the build-up of the Iraqi Security Forces, including training and the delivery of weapons systems such as F16 jets and coastal defense assets. There are also robust police training missions provided by NATO and the US that should continue to improve Iraqis’ daily lives.

Ultimately, the US envisions incorporating Iraq into a regional security framework. Even so, many Iraqis fear a drastic decrease of US involvement in the next 19 months. The US embassy and the White House have taken a largely hands-off attitude amid the bargaining between parties and politicians to form the next government.

Washington’s focus on withdrawal, and the administration’s perceived lack of high-level political attention on Iraq, save an occasional phone call or visit from the vice president, have provoked anxiety.

American efforts to remain engaged by working through civil society have fared no better. Iraqis with whom we interacted expressed suspicion about the poor choices of partners and worried about corruption among those who receive foreign funding.

Still, Iraqis seem not to have clarified their own idea of what they want. There seemed to be an unspoken desire to have an open-ended trusteeship under the US, however politically impractical that might be. A loss of confidence in the US tends to reinforce more self-defeating strategies among Iraqis, including reliance on ethnic and religious solidarity and avoiding compromise in the interest of communitarian self protection.

It is certainly true that many issues affecting Iraq’s future and its relationship with the US remain unresolved. Iraq’s next government must still be formed. Its policies could be determined by pragmatists such as Iyad Allawi or Nouri al Maliki or those who are not, such as the radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a long-term resident of Iran. Iraq has yet to lift its gaze from its own internal politics to focus on the role it wants and needs to play in the region. Its foreign policy, in short, has not been determined.

But Washington still must act. It is incumbent on the US to decide how it sees the future of the relationship and how it might leverage it to serve the interests of stability in the Gulf. US officials told us that they are reticent to discuss future security relations with Iraq without a specific request from Iraq’s government.

Thus, important subjects such as a follow-on agreement to provide the framework for an American military presence after 2011, which both Iraqis and the US agree is necessary, have not been dealt with in any detail. The planned build-up of a US civilian presence to take over some of the security roles and expand new areas of co-operation will prove hard to implement, and cannot replace the visible and reassuring presence of US forces.

Despite the enormous strides the Iraqi Security Forces have made, they are viewed in some quarters as sectarian or political agents, and their very obvious presence on the streets of Baghdad has a limited effect on the population’s sense of security.

The US must move quickly to assure Iraqis of a long-term commitment to their success. It might start by quietly evaluating the goals and requirements of a US security presence beyond 2011, and how to broach this with a new government in Baghdad.

Time is of the essence, as military planning timelines are already winding down and cannot easily be reset. US action on this front is not just a key to stability in the region but would also demonstrate that it has learnt the lessons of the past in Afghanistan, where hasty drawdowns required the US to return to fight again in worse conditions and without the full trust of their hosts.

Will the United States do it right in Iraq? A former Iraqi government minister has his doubts. He told us: “America has a taxicab policy. I’ll jump in, you take me to my destination, and then we’ll say goodbye.”

The question for the US is whether that metaphor will prove to be the strategy, and perhaps the epitaph, for the US experience in Iraq.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.