Not the end of the war in Iraq?
As Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki visited Washington this week to mark the official end of the US-led war in Iraq, observers were asking whether the war had really ended, writes Salah Nasrawi
US President Barack Obama invited Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki to Washington this week for talks on the next phase of the relationship between their two countries after the last US soldiers leave Iraq by the end of this year.
Obama and Al-Maliki are expected to try to forge a strategy that will indicate how the two countries will be able to shift their relationship from one based on military occupation to one driven by security cooperation and economic engagement.
As it turned out, the discussions left many questions unanswered, even as the White House turned the Iraqi prime minister's visit into a celebratory event meant to mark the end of the US-led war in Iraq.
The White House capitalised on Al-Maliki's visit in order to highlight the return of the last US troops from Iraq as a key Obama foreign policy victory that he will now flourish before voters in next year's US presidential elections.
Flanked by Al-Maliki, Obama, whose chances of a second term in the White House have been looking increasingly bleak, announced after the talks that the last US troops would leave Iraq this year "with their heads held high."
Obama called Iraq a "sovereign, self-reliant, and democratic" country, describing Washington's future ties with Iraq as an "equal partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
Al-Maliki's visit to Washington heralded a week of commemoration of the nearly 4,500 US troops killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003. After the talks, Obama took Al-Maliki to lay a wreath at the US Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where some of the soldiers are buried.
There was plenty of criticism in Washington for the White House's commemorative week, organised under the title of a "promise kept" in a reference to Obama's inauguration pledge to "responsibly leave Iraq."
Republican leaders and the American press criticised Obama for trying to put too positive a spin on what is still a bleak situation in Iraq.
In Baghdad, too, there were strong criticisms of Al-Maliki. Iraqi radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr criticised the Washington visit as a sign of "political weakness and a religious violation" by Al-Maliki.
During this week's talks, Obama and Al-Maliki focused on how the US and Iraq would now cooperate to advance ties under the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement between the two countries, notably by encouraging commerce, trade and investment.
Full details of what was discussed at the meeting have not been revealed, but the two leaders promised that their two countries would remain "strategic partners" in the region.
They said that they had discussed ways in which the United States would continue to assist Iraqi forces after 2011, even without the presence of US forces in the country.
However, details were sketchy, and a private army of American contractors working as "trainers" for the US state department is now set to replace the departing US troops.
The US embassy in Baghdad, dubbed the largest in the world, is reportedly keeping thousands of people stationed in Iraq.
However, both leaders avoided tackling the controversial issue of the immunity of remaining US personnel, a dispute that torpedoed earlier plans to keep a residual US military presence in the country.
Iraqi leaders have said they want US military training for their security forces, but they have rejected proposals to give any type of legal immunity to Americans in Iraq, even those working as trainers or experts.
Al-Sadr has threatened to order his Iran-sponsored militia to attack American soldiers "disguised as civilian contractors or diplomatic personnel."
He also criticised Al-Maliki for joining Obama in commemorating the fallen US soldiers, saying that the Iraqi leader should instead have asked for an apology from Obama for the families of Iraqi victims of the war.
On Monday, NATO said it was withdrawing its Iraq training mission at the end of the year after Baghdad refused to grant it legal immunity.
All this is hardly good news if Obama stands a chance of keeping his promise to work to ensure Iraq's political stability and strengthen its national defenses even after the withdrawal of the US troops.
The developments raise serious questions about whether the US has a clear strategy on how to deal with possible security threats in Iraq after the withdrawal of its remaining troops when it has little military power in the country.
Despite the rhetoric from Al-Maliki and Obama, Iraq's security forces are unable to maintain their capabilities and equipment, much less defend the country against a multitude of internal and external threats after the US pullout.
As Al-Maliki visited Washington on Monday and Tuesday, seven people died in shootings and explosions in Iraq itself, seen by many Iraqis as having been motivated by sectarian considerations.
On Tuesday, two bombs set off a blaze at an oil pipeline in Basra, Iraq's main oil refinery in the south of the country.
Even more troubling than the security weaknesses has been the erosion of the fragile political process established under the US occupation, which has been eroding since the formation of the current governing coalition in Iraq.
Many Iraqis believe that Al-Maliki is pursuing his own sectarian agenda that focuses on consolidating Shia power and monopolising control of the state and security forces under his Daawa Party.
Al-Maliki's failure to preserve a multi-ethnic political accommodation in Iraq has increasingly pushed the country's Sunni minority population to demand semi-autonomous status.
On Monday, Diyala joined the largely Sunni-populated Anbar and Salaheddin provinces to become a semi-autonomous region within the Iraqi state. Ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds have also recently deepened.
Moreover, Iranian ambitions have added to concerns about Iraqi stability after the Americans leave. It is widely expected that Iran will try to fill the vacuum left in Iraq by the US departure.
It is evident that Washington lacks a strategy to curb Iranian influence in the country and secure vital US interests in the region after its withdrawal.
Such a strategy, which rests largely on how Al-Maliki chooses to define himself, will significantly influence the future of Iraq's relationship with the US and Washington's strategy in the Middle East.
Iraq is currently being influenced by Iran, as it was in its decision to refuse Arab League attempts to isolate the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and extend sanctions against Syria, a key Iranian ally.
During their White House press conference, Al-Maliki differed with Obama over how much pressure to put on the Syrian president, saying that it was not his job to make demands on a neighbour.
Al-Maliki's Syrian strategy is putting him on a collision course with Sunni countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia that also wield enormous influence in Iraq.
By travelling to Washington, Al-Maliki may have wanted to celebrate the end of the US-led war as the Iraqi leader who negotiated the treaty that paved the way for the US troop withdrawal.
However, with the Americans out of the country the pressing question now is if Iraq can survive the dangers and threats that now loom, even as its fabric has been shredded by the sectarian bombings, killings and strife that have afflicted the country since the 2003 US-led invasion.