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US withdrawal from Iraq: the beginning of stability?

Commentary, 1 July 2009
Middle East and North Africa
The date for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has been dubbed the ‘National Day of Sovereignty’, but the quest for Iraqi stability is not over yet. Iraqi politicians and US officials alike must now commit to encouraging the war-torn country to stand on its own feet.

US soldier checking IraqisThe date for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has been dubbed the ‘National Day of Sovereignty’, but the quest for Iraqi stability is not over yet. Iraqi politicians and US officials alike must now commit to encouraging the war-torn country to stand on its own feet.

By Mina Al-Oraibi for RUSI.org

30 June 2009, the date for the withdrawal of American troops out of Iraqi cities, is yet another significant date for Iraq. It forms part of a longer process of significant dates from 17 March 2003 to the present that have overhauled the entire political process of a country suffering from upheaval and turmoil for decades. From the George W. Bush’s ultimatum Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war, to the subsequent launching of the war and deposing of Saddam Hussein on 7 April or the 31 December 2008 ending of the UN-mandated MNFI mission in Iraq, a slew of milestones shape the framework of a contentious and difficult transition in Iraq.

The transition from American to Iraqi security control of all Iraqi cities is one landmark that has crucial security and political implications on the final outcome of the last six years. While 131,000 American troops remain in Iraq, with a large part of them in Camp Victory in Baghdad, the day-to-day security of Iraqi streets will be left to Iraqi members of police and army, whose numbers range between 6,000 and 7,000. Violence has escalated over the past few months, with over 170 dead and hundreds wounded over the last two weeks. Furthermore, violent attacks on Iraqi security and civilians will continue, while five US troops were killed in the twenty four hours of American withdrawal from the cities. The test to Iraqi security forces will be the decrease of these attacks, while the greater challenge will be eliminating the sectarianism that has plagued them, thereby earning the trust of the Iraqi people.

Resisting the destabilisers

There will be many Iraqis and non-Iraqis working against Iraq’s stabilisation. Militants, loyalists of Saddam Hussein and the current government’s opponents fear that a stable Iraq will end their own political ambitions. Moreover, what is left of Al-Qa’ida in Iraq along with foreign-funded militants in the country will continue to pose risks and escalate violence to hinder chances of a strengthened Iraq.

Withdrawing US troops from Iraqi cities, marks the halfway point in the implementation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between Iraq and the US at the end of 2008. While American officials called the agreement the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, Iraqi politicians have been calling it the ‘Agreement to withdraw American forces’, in a bid to portray it as a roadmap to ending American presence in Iraq. The naming of the agreement was vital for Iraqi politicians in power, especially the Prime Minister Nouri Al-Makili and his party, who are staking much of their political future on being seen as independent from the United States. Maliki wishes to be seen as the man who presided over the ending of American occupation on the one hand, and the man who can secure Iraq on the other, which explains the name given to his electoral list: ‘The State of Security and Law’.

As Iraq prepares for the national elections in January 2010, incumbents will endeavour to prove their ability to lead the country and stabilise it. The withdrawal of American forces from the cities has been declared a public holiday and called ‘National Day of Sovereignty’. Iraq officials, from the President Jalal Talabani to Maliki and Minister of the Interior Jawad Al-Boulani and Minister of Defence Abdel-Qadir Al-Oubaidi, have all stressed national sovereignty and impendence while national anthems and songs have dominated Iraqi media outlets. All of this is part of a political effort to establish a sense of national pride in Iraq’s trajectory amongst the people and to narrow that gap between the population and a leadership that is still seen as separated by Green Zone politics. Delivering on promises of security and much-needed services will be the key to earning the trust of the Iraqi people, more than declared public holidays or speeches.

Working with Washington

On their part, American officials have been stressing Iraq’s ability to take care of its own affairs. The Strategic Framework Agreement, the second agreement signed by the two countries along with the SOFA, is held up by American officials as the fundamental basis of relations between the two: one of mutual respect and interests, rather than military dominance. While Iraqi politicians in positions of power in Baghdad owe much to American support, both sides are keen to highlight the increased independence of Iraq’s rulers.

Iraq standing on its own feet is vital for the new American administration under the leadership of President Barak Obama. It is clear that the Obama administration sees Afghanistan as the bigger challenge, the more smoothly the transition over the next months in Iraq, the more the focus on Afghanistan will be. By September 2010, American combat troops will leave Iraq, with an end-goal of all troops out of Iraq by December 2011, as dictated by the SOFA. However, Washington must not repeat the mistakes of the past, when a relatively stable Afghanistan in 2002-2003 was abandoned to deal with Iraq, the reverse must not be repeated. A relatively less volatile Iraq is not in itself a mark of success for the United States. The balance between military withdrawal and political investment for stability will be one of the main tests for both Baghdad and Washington.

Mina al-Oraibi is the Washington bureau chief for Asharq Al-Awsat, the international pan-Arab daily.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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