A Hollow Victory for Iraq
How the militants are celebrating the U.S. withdrawal.
Last week's "National Sovereignty Day" was a euphoric one for Iraq. Men, women, and children flocked into the streets and cried tears of joy, celebrating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi towns and cities -- the first phase of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement that could see foreign forces out of the country by the end of 2011. That same week, Baghdad held its first postwar oil auction. Oil giants took part in a televised bidding round, hoping to claim a piece of the country's estimated 115 billion barrels of reserves. Iraq, it seems, is starting to look more and more like a sovereign state capable of managing its own affairs.
Last week’s "National Sovereignty Day" was a euphoric one for Iraq. Men, women, and children flocked into the streets and cried tears of joy, celebrating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi towns and cities — the first phase of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement that could see foreign forces out of the country by the end of 2011. That same week, Baghdad held its first postwar oil auction. Oil giants took part in a televised bidding round, hoping to claim a piece of the country’s estimated 115 billion barrels of reserves. Iraq, it seems, is starting to look more and more like a sovereign state capable of managing its own affairs.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Hiding behind Iraq’s apparent independence are the country’s militants, waiting and poised for the opportunities a U.S. withdrawal could now permit.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to prematurely coin June 30 as National Sovereignty Day was a weak attempt to disguise this unavoidable reality. U.S. troops will be situated in military bases technically "outside" urban areas, but they will remain nearby, even visible from urban centers. U.S. soldiers will still patrol the streets with their Iraqi counterparts; U.S. logistical support will continue; and U.S. training and mentoring teams will be guarded by their own combat soldiers. Moreover, the all-essential behind-the-scenes network of U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism experts will keep providing surveillance and mobile interception data. All of these "on-duty" U.S. forces have the right to defend themselves militarily when operating in Iraqi cities.
The prime minister is keen to claim the withdrawal as a victory for himself. But if anything, the troop phaseout is a victory for the militants, who are desperately but defiantly hanging on in volatile areas such as Mosul, Diyala, and Kirkuk. Mosul in particular has been a hotbed of terrorist activity since 2003, but it is also where U.S. efforts have led to an improved security situation. Attacks there now amount to about 5 per day, compared with the daily 20 to 30 of previous years. It might seem logical to keep U.S. combat troops in place to hold those gains. The opposite has taken place, however, and the consequences might be showing: 34 people were killed there today in a suicide bomb attack.
Maliki insists that Iraqi soldiers and police officers are up to the task of stopping al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies. In truth, the country’s security forces have yet to make their mark in any major operation. Even the 2008 "Charge of the Knights" operation against Shiite militias in Basra that won Iraqi troops local respect would have been a brutal defeat had it not been for U.S. intervention. It was this U.S. presence that eventually reclaimed the streets and handed peace back to the people.
By insisting that U.S. troops exit the main stage despite all this, Maliki has put politics first. The prime minister’s eye is on national elections scheduled for the end of the year. Maliki knows that his "repulsion of the occupiers" could win him political clout and campaign ammunition. He enjoys little support in Mosul, which is perhaps why it has failed to warrant the same urgent and decisive security operation we saw in Shiite-dominated Basra in 2008. For the militants, Mosul consequently became a place where they can regroup, reinvigorate morale, and capitalize on an exposed, vulnerable Iraqi security force.
Mosul also constitutes a danger zone because of growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Today, that animosity is so intense that just one nasty exchange could spark a wider Arab-Kurd conflict that could derail the whole country. Previous eruptions were tamed only by U.S. mediation — and the militants know that. Whether U.S. forces will be ready to arbitrate disputes in the future remains to be seen.
Iraq’s leaders are running from the reality that Iraq is still a divided nation unable to handle its security challenges. The troop withdrawal masks this fact, but the facade of unity is sure to crack. Political reconciliation is the only way to stability, but Iraq’s leaders shy away from admitting that this will be contingent on U.S. diplomatic intervention or the presence of troops to act as a buffer.
The war in Iraq, a military and political one, is far from being won. The terrorists and insurgents are down but not yet out. The images of joyous Iraqis, broadcast into living rooms around the world, were little more than a skillfully orchestrated show of self-denial disguised in nationalism. It’s a kind of posturing that even Saddam might have been proud of.
Ranj Alaaldin is a political researcher and analyst specializing in the Middle East.
Ranj Alaaldin is director of Crisis Response Council, a fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, and a consultant at the World Bank. Twitter: @RanjAlaaldin
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