A sight of departing US forces was a long-time dream for sections of the Iraqi population opposed directly and indirectly to the American occupation. However, as the remaining US combat forces trickle over the desertous border, ahead of the 31st August deadline as per their strategic agreement with Baghdad, what kind of an Iraq will they be leaving behind?
Back in April 2003 amidst short-lived euphoria, the ambition and vision for the new Iraq was bold and inspiring. Not only did the US overthrow a brutal dictator but aimed to induce a sense of western values and democracy to Iraq that at the same time would serve as a model for the greater Middle East.
Seven battle-hardened years later with over 4,400 troops dead, 30,000 wounded and not to mention war costs that now run into trillions of dollars, the Iraqi adventure will always remain a blot on US foreign policy and one that will symbolise the contentious tenure of George W. Bush.
While the US was seemingly bogged in a quagmire and stuck in a vicious cycle between insurgents on the street and bickering politicians in parliament, the situation in Iraq was averted from a total failure with Iraq finally turning a corner, the appeal of sectarianism slowly waning and security improving dramatically.
However, the situation in Iraq is by no means irreversible and the crunch period for the stability and future of Iraq is yet to be seen. No better way sums up the continual frailties that remain than the current circumstances that encompass the US withdrawal.
Almost six months after the milestone national elections that was hoped to foster the first genuine post-war national government, Iraqis still bicker on the choice of prime minister lest forming a new government to deal with the decisive issues that loiter on the parliamentary shelf.
While Iraq may not necessarily make the front pages of the news as it used to, this shouldn’t mask the fact that Iraq is still tentative and has great strides to make. As such, even as Washington can breathe a sigh of relief after almost a decade of two brutal wars that stretched even the might of the world’s greatest army to its very limits, Iraq is far from a “job done”.
While certain circles have been all too frequently keen to highlight US deficiencies in Iraq, Iraqi politicians must take a lion share of the blame for protracted progress and slow reconciliation. The US is hardly responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and the controversy over the US occupation merely masked key issues on the ground that was tapered for decades by totalitarian rule.
The huge US presence particularly in the aftermath of the surge campaign was designed to offer Iraqis crucial “breathing space” that was hoped to cement political progress. However, much of the benchmarks set by the US failed to be achieved by the Iraqi government.
Even as Baghdad has progressively moved towards full sovereignty in recent years and become more confident to stand on its own feet, the same fundamental handicaps continued to undermine the Iraqi mission.
Iraq is a disparate nation with a deep history of mistrust amongst its ethnic and sectarian mosaic. Too often direct US influence in the Iraqi political chambers allowed key legislation and government forming to ensue. More strikingly, whilst progress and milestones were often hailed over the years to showcase Iraqi path to success, many achievements could only be ushered by brushing key political hot-potatoes under the political rug.
For example, seven years later, enmity and ideological divides on the running of the country plague relationships between Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite camps. The Iraqi oil industry, which on paper has the power to propel Iraq to great economic heights, continues to linger behind with a lack of a census amongst groups on a true way to share its immense oil wealth.
Years after the onset of the constitution, the implementation of key terms such as article 140 continues to gather dust. While for many years, the spotlight was on the Sunni-Shiite showdown resulting in almost all out civil war, the strategic differences between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad were not as relevant. However, one of the greatest dangers that continue to gather pace is the simmering tension in the disputed border regions in the north, particularly in Kirkuk.
Although, relatively calm for now, the growing issue is yet to bear its full fruit owed to years of foot-dragging in resolving key standoffs between Arabs and Kurds.
In reality, the US has invested too many lives, money and foreign policy to wave good bye just yet. Far from the end of an era, the presence of 50,000 full armed US soldiers is hardly a meagre figure. The US with its eyes on the growing menace of Iran and its ongoing war in Afghanistan, can not afford an Iraq that slips into deeper infighting and insurgency and drags the rest of the Middle East down with it.
In essence from the 1st September 2010 under its new label of Operation New Dawn, all that may be happening is a rebranding of the American escapade. Remaining “non-combat” troops have the legal jurisdiction to continue counter-terrorism operations, assists Iraqi forces and act in self defence.
Owed to the fractured nature of the state, Iraqis are very much susceptible to foreign meddling and without a strong government in Baghdad Iraq may well play a role of a client state for neighbouring countries in the years to come. Iran continues to exert strong influence on Shiite parties, Turkey continues to build and strengthen its ties with Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan observe diligently to ensure that Sunni interests do not succumb to a new wave of Shiite revolutionaries on their eastern borders.
Political frustrations aside, security in Iraq is hardly clean-cut. One only has to point to the notion that there are now “only” 50 or so deaths a week. That is still 50 lives too many that Iraqi families have to endure. Although, Iraqi forces numbering over 600,000 are formidable on paper, by their own admission they are not ready to assume full responsibility for all aspects of security without US assistance.
Furthermore, just where loyalties lie within the forces is open to question. Until the security forces broadly comprise all three groups, sentiments will be cautious to the effectiveness and impartiality of the forces.
Above all else, as at least a phase of the US adventure comes to a close, people have lost sight of the overall picture. The new Iraq and foreign actors must realise that a brutal dictator, who killed thousands of his own civilians with chemical weapons, launched deadly wars, drained national resources and repressed three quarters of the population was removed thanks to the US. Just ask the Kurds in north at their gratitude towards the Americans.
The new Iraq can in theory excel economically and strategically. However, as the US has come to terms over seven years, they can only push Iraqis so far, the rest of the journey only Iraqis can assume whilst Americans anxiously watch. Iraqis must start to look at key differences that continue to blight progress and realise only they can muster a new dawn. There is nothing the US can do but hope that their grand and costly excursion in Iraq comes to fruition.