US Iraq Troop Withdrawal 'In Name Only' As Country Faces Uncertain Future

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Radio Free Europe

US Iraq Troop Withdrawal 'In Name Only' As Country Faces Uncertain Future

by
Robert Tait

US soldiers drive past a pool of blood from a car bomb in Baghdad during October 2006. Photograph: Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

Perched on top of an armored vehicle, the exultant U.S. soldier's
shouted boasts left no room for doubt as his troop convoy trundled into
Kuwait: "We're goin' home, we won. It's over. America, we brought
democracy to Iraq. I love you, I love you."

As a snap summary of
a highly symbolic moment -- the departure of the last major batch of
U.S. combat troops from Iraq more than seven years after the U.S.-led
invasion -- it at least had the merit of clarity. As a statement of
fact, however, it concealed a multitude of sins, failures, unintended
consequences, and doubts about the future.

For as soldiers of
the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, poured out of Iraq under
cover of darkness early on August 19 -- two weeks ahead of President
Barack Obama's August 31deadline -- they left behind a country plagued
in some ways by as much uncertainty as when the self-styled "coalition
of the willing" invaded to topple Saddam Hussein's regime in March 2003.

Saddam may be long gone but -- contrary to the soldier's
emotive claims -- who "won" is far from clear. And in contrast to the
impression meant to be conveyed by the departure of U.S. fighting
forces, Iraq today is far from secure. Militant insurgents remain
ominously active.

On
17 August, a suicide bomber killed 61 Iraqi Army recruits in central
Baghdad, while five government employees were killed in roadside
bombings and other attacks the following day. Iraqi officials say July
saw the deaths of more than 500 people, including 396 civilians, making
it the deadliest month for more than two years.

The prospects
for further violence in a conflict, which --- according to the
independent monitoring group, Iraq Body Count -- has already accounted
for the deaths of between 97,000 and 106,000 civilians, are all too
real.

Expectations Not Met

As for
democracy, Iraq has not had a functioning elected government for more
than five months, following disagreements about the results of last
March's general election, leaving a political vacuum ripe for violent
insurgent groups like Al-Qaeda to flourish.

The country's economy, too, remains unstable, while its social cohesion is badly fractured.

According
to Pentagon figures, the war in Iraq has cost the lives of at least
4,415 U.S. soldiers -- so the exuberance of the departing U.S. forces
was understandable. But whatever they are leaving behind, it is hardly
peace and stability.

The outcome of the war is very different
from that envisaged in 2003, when President George Bush ordered the
invasion, says Paul Rogers of the Department of Peace Studies at
Bradford University in England.

"It is so different from what was
expected 7 1/2 years ago, when the expectation was that Iraq would
rapidly move to a peaceful pro-Western country with a very effective and
vibrant free-market economy," Rogers says. "The result instead has been
over 100,000 civilians killed and 4 million refugees and a very
protracted war, which, at least for the moment, has left a high degree
of instability." The continued lack of a government just makes this
worse, he adds.

Iraq's, Region's Winners And Losers

That confounding of expectations becomes clear when trying to sort out winners from losers.

Among
Iraqi groups, the Kurds appear to be plain gainers, having established
autonomy in the northeast of the country over a region that is
relatively stable.

Arguably even bigger winners are the majority
Shi'ite community, which has gained a degree of political power from
which it was excluded during Saddam's rule, when the Sunni minority held
the reins. The Sunni community, by contrast, is widely believed to have
lost out in the unfolding political flux of the past seven years.

But
most striking -- and dismaying from the perspective of U.S.
policymakers -- has been the strategic advantage gained by the United
States' longtime adversary, Iran, which has gained from the removal of a
regime that it fought in a bloody eight-year war during the 1980s. The
theocracy in Tehran has also been able to exploit its shared Shi'ite
faith with Iraq's majority to gain an important political foothold.

"Iran
has probably gained the most, one would have to say," Rogers argues,
"Saudi Arabia probably much less so and there are concerns in the
kingdom because of the way in which Iran has gained. It's not that the
Shi'as in Iraq are very much beholden to Iran. Theologically, one would
say that Shi'a Islam probably has more important sites in Iraq than it
does in Iran and there is a belief in a sense that one has to be
cautious on the Iranian side about trying to gain too much influence.
But probably in broad terms, Iran is the biggest single beneficiary of
the changes in Iraq as far as the region is concerned."

Iran's
gain may be Israel's loss. In the run-up to the war, the then-Israeli
government of Ariel Sharon fervently favored Saddam's removal -- with
memories still fresh of Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Tel Aviv in
1991, when a U.S.-led military coalition began operations to expel Iraqi
troops occupying Kuwait. Talk in Israel in the immediate aftermath of
invasion was of investing in post-Saddam Iraq and even of Israeli
tourists flocking to a country from which thousands of Jews had fled in
the aftermath of the Jewish state's establishment in 1948.

Instead, Israeli policymakers are now preoccupied by the resultant rise of Iran as a regional adversary and potential threat.

Dependant On U.S. Support

But
even amid such domestic and regional power realignments, the depiction
of the August 19 troop departure as a final U.S. withdrawal is something
of a fiction.

While
U.S. combat operations will officially terminate at the end of this
month, when 6,000 support troops withdraw, another 50,000 U.S. forces
will remain until the end of 2011, officially in an "advisory" capacity
but with the potential to become more directly involved if the need
arises.

In reality, U.S. military input is almost certain to
remain tangible, especially given the recent warning from Iraq's top
army officer, Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari, that his troops may not
be ready for another decade and that the United States is pulling out
too soon.

The United States is likely to stay closely involved
in Iraq's defense irrespective of its troops' presence, says Hamid
Fadhil, professor of political science at the University of Baghdad. He
notes that U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is the biggest in the world in terms
of size and number of employees.

"But I have to mention that Iraq
is still dependent on the U.S. in many ways," Fadhil adds. "For
example, there is some ambiguity when it comes to the aspect of external
security and about the commitment of the U.S. to defend Iraq from any
external attack."

Privatizing Security

One
key component of Iraqi security likely to remain in the hands of the
United States is air defense, a role Iraq is presently unequipped to
adopt since it lacks an air force.

Following the departure of
U.S. forces next year, responsibility for training Iraqi police to deal
with insurgents is to be taken over by the State Department. The task
will be carried out by contractors and is certain to result in a rapid
increase in the presence of private security organizations. Already,
according to "The New York Times," the State Department is planning to
double the number of private security guards to around 7,000 to protect
civilians.

Rogers says the U.S. troop drawdown will not end the
involvement of external forces but will simply privatize it -- ensuring a
large foreign involvement for many years to come.

"I think for
the next 18 months, the reality is that there is going to be a large
formal American military presence," Rogers says. "You may call them
advise-and-assist brigades, but they do have a combat function if need
be.

"But what is clearly going to happen is the privatization of
foreign-security involvements in Iraq. That's already at a pretty heavy
level, with many tens of thousands of security personnel from abroad.
That I think, if anything, will at least increase but certainly not
diminish. So in a sense, there is a transition over the next 18 months
to two years towards at least a partial privatization of foreign
security intervention in Iraq. I think that will persist for a long
time."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report

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