Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 -21 April 2010
Issue No. 994
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Anniversary of an invasion

Even if US forces leave Iraq as planned later this year, seven years after the US-led invasion how long will it take to put the country back on its feet, asks Salah Hemeid

Click to view caption
George Bush and Tony Blair (above left); Head of UNMOVIC Hans Blix who refused to yield to pressures from both the US president and British PM to find a "Smoking Gun", thus rendering the war on Iraq illegitimate

Seven years after the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, the war that was once declared by former president George W. Bush as a "mission accomplished" seems to be never ending and the country looks poised to face more years of violence and conflict.

As Iraqis marked the anniversary of the invasion last Friday, Baghdad and other cities witnessed several days of violence, including execution-style killings of officials and security guards and a string of suicide bombings that targeted foreign embassies and government offices, killing and wounding hundreds.

While the recent wave of violence could be linked to tensions over the results of last month's parliamentary elections, it also highlights the immense cost of the 2003 invasion in lives, money and regional geopolitics.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, two million or more have been displaced and the country's social fabric has been torn apart. Iraq's economy has been ruined and regional stability and security reduced.

The invasion also overshadows the promised departure of American combat forces by the end of August and the withdrawal of all forces by the end of next year, which many Americans see as the end of Bush's war on Iraq.

Yet, on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the US-led invasion, Iraqis are still looking for a real end to the conflict. Iraqis want to be the sole source of authority in their own country and to start rebuilding it as a sovereign and independent state.

However, the reality is that no one can be sure whether the American withdrawal will indeed bring peace to the war-torn country. Given the ongoing tension and violence, this remains at best a distant possibility.

US president Barack Obama, who swept into office on an anti-Iraq war ticket and has since claimed that the war is winding down, has signaled his determination to pull all US forces out of the country by the end of 2011. Commentators are nevertheless sceptical that Obama's pledge to remove "combat troops" by 1 September, leaving about 50,000 troops in "non-combat" roles, will bring about a real end to the war. If the violence in the country continues to soar, as has been threatened by last week's bombings, and goes on to spark another sectarian chain reaction, then, they argue, the United States will be forced to keep its troops in the country longer than has been promised.

In recent weeks there has been much speculation in the US media that the military might indeed try to slow down the withdrawal. Head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, had said the US may leave stronger-than-expected forces in northern Iraq if the situation requires it, even as it acts to reduce troops elsewhere in the country to targeted levels. Testifying before a Senate panel, Petraeus confirmed plans to meet Obama's target of 50,000 US troops in the country by the end of August, down from about 97,000 today. He also noted that the situation in Iraq remains fragile, despite declining levels of violence and the high turnout in the recent national elections, and said that the US military was still tinkering with plans on how best to administer the drawdown.

Last month General Ray Odierno, the top US general in Iraq, made international headlines when his request to keep a military combat unit in the contentious northern city of Kirkuk after next September was leaked to the media. Pentagon officials have made clear that US troops remaining in Iraq after 1 September, although technically on an "advise and assist" mission, will still be capable of conducting military operations.

And even as regular forces are withdrawn, many observers expect that the level of Special Operations forces will remain constant. Some have also argued that the designation of non-combat status is "a false dichotomy," since it implies that "everyone in the military is a combat soldier."

No matter what detailed conclusions one might draw, it remains clear that the US is in a serious situation that might force the Obama administration into rethinking its plans in Iraq. Is it time to start bringing the troops home, or is more time needed to complete US goals in the country?

One reason for US forces to push back the 1 September deadline and stay longer in Iraq could be the failure to build efficient Iraqi security forces and to turn over the conduct of the war to Iraqi forces. Despite the US administration's repeated declarations that the Iraqi security forces are ready to carry out the tasks assigned to them, some have questioned the capacity of these forces to shoulder the task. Their professionalism and independence from political control remain questionable.

Iraq's armed forces now number about 255,000 personnel, while the various police services number some 408,000. However, these forces have been infiltrated by the country's various militias, and it is not uncommon for soldiers and police officers to refuse to fight, or even to join the other side. As the deadly bombings continued last week, gunmen wearing police uniforms and armed with silenced weapons killed several government officials, members of Awakening Councils, and former militiamen turned local guards, as well as the owners of shops selling alcohol.

The bombings highlighted the need for a more powerful and professional force to handle a persistent insurgency that seems determined to shake public confidence in the government's ability to impose law and order in the country.

On the political front, the main question now is to what extent Iraq can stand alone without the presence of the 100,000 US troops in the country, given the failure of the 7 March elections to bring about a strong government that can be entrusted with security.

The March elections have fallen short of bringing peace to the country and have demonstrated that Iraq is still bitterly divided along sectarian lines. No political leader or party has emerged that can command the loyalty of all the country's religious sects and ethnicities. Kurds, Arabs, Shias and Sunnis have yet to accommodate each others' expectations or banish the prospect of violence being used to achieve their aims.

Iraqi governmental institutions remain weak and corrupt, with ministries being run as party fiefdoms. Public services, such as electricity, water and healthcare, are dire. Highly trained professionals, such as doctors and university professors, who earlier fled the country in their tens of thousands have yet to return.

For all these reasons, any break in the political process resulting from the inconclusive results of the recent elections could trigger political turmoil that could imperil the timetable for US troop withdrawal. Taking the expected business deals into consideration, the United States is also unlikely to leave Iraq when rival countries, such as Russia and China, are eyeing the oil-rich nation as an investment goldmine.

Iraq has recently signed major oil contracts with foreign, including two American, companies. With its US-supported privatisation programme taking effect, Iraq is expected to offer lucrative business contracts that US companies cannot afford to lose. This has led some observers to believe that Washington might change its military occupation into an economic one. The US could claim that Iraq's economy is progressing shakily and still needs outside help, or it could claim that it is vital to American interests.

The US military invasion of Iraq has also added further instability to the already politically precarious regions of the Middle East and Arab Gulf. Since the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, Iran has expanded its influence into the Arab world, which could spark conflict between Iran and key US allies in the region. US influence in the region is challenged by Iran, and any scaling back of the American presence in Iraq would impact its Middle Eastern presence as a whole, leaving Iran as a major regional player. Such considerations might force Washington to extend its military presence in Iraq, claiming that efforts to stabilise the region could take decades.

Last Monday the US embassy in Iraq announced that the recent wave of violence in Iraq would not affect the timetable for the withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011.

News of the Iraq war is no longer front- page news in US newspapers, and Obama seems more interested in rebuilding America than in helping to rebuild Iraq. Nevertheless, America has not abandoned Iraq. The history of America's involvement in the Middle East suggests that securing its strategic interests in the region require ensuring the sources of its influence and power: military presence and political clout.

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