Iraq celebrates a victory of sorts By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Iraqi calendars are marked with special days relevant to their
history. Previously, July 14 - the day the army toppled the Hashemite monarchy
in 1958 - was a national holiday. So was April 7, the day the Ba'ath Party was
formed in 1947.
Iraqis now have a new public holiday - National Sovereignty Day, the withdrawal
of United States troops from Iraqi towns and cities on June 30 and the formal
handover of security duties to new Iraqi forces as per the Status of Forces
Agreement (SOFA) approved by the Iraqi government in late 2008 between Iraq and
the United States.
Tuesday's pullback is certainly a milestone on the road to sovereignty as it
partially ends the occupation that began on
March 20, 2003. A total of 130,000 US troops will remain in Iraq; that number
is to drop to 50,000 by the summer of 2010, when all US-led combat operations
are due to end. Full withdrawal, as US President Barack Obama has repeatedly
promised, will be by 2012.
Baghdad threw giant fireworks and song parties on the eve of the changeover,
but there are serious concerns over the security situation, especially as there
has been a spike in violence in the past month or so. In just the past week,
250 people have been killed, including 150 people in the northern city of
In anticipation of Tuesday's pullout, the government has increased security
throughout the country, banning motorcycles - which are excellent tools for
bombs and violence - and imposing strict curfews and other security measures.
Security in urban areas will now rest with an estimated 200,000 trained and
assigned Iraqi army troops, more than 42,000 paramilitary national police and
over 300,000 regular police.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said this week that despite the recent surge in
violence, Iraq could handle its own security after June 30, which he called
"We are on the threshold of a new phase that will bolster Iraq's sovereignty.
It is a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and
administer our internal affairs," Maliki said, while blaming the latest attacks
on al-Qaeda. "If they [militants] want to bring down the political process, we
say, it won't collapse unless national unity is shaken."
Echoing his words, Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a strong ally of Iran who
called the latest attacks "crimes against humanity", blamed them on regional
powers (an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia).
Both leaders have asked ordinary Iraqis not to worry, claiming that better
security was on the way, along with more reconciliation between the majority
Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The recent attacks, the bloodiest in nearly two years, will be a reminder that
Iraqis cannot take anything for granted - let alone peace in a country that has
seen over 100,000 documented civilian deaths and 4,316 confirmed coalition
military deaths in the past six years.
United States President Barack Obama sounded skeptical on Friday, saying, "I
haven't seen as much political progress in Iraq - negotiations between the
Sunni, the Shi'ite and the Kurds - as I would like to see." His ambassador to
Baghdad, Christopher Hill, was more optimistic, "Iraqi forces are ready to take
over this nation. What we are doing here is implementing our obligation under
the security agreement with Iraq [signed in December 2008]. We have worked very
hard for this day."
Sunni politicians are seemingly less worried than Obama, privately saying that
the cause of internal violence since 2003 has been Iraq's Iranian neighbor,
which today is too busy with its internal affairs to meddle in Iraqi domestics
following the controversial re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on June
Sunnis in general are eager to see the departure of US troops, blaming them for
all the violence and chaos since the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. They
believe, like Hill said, that Iraq will be able to govern itself and settle
internal disputes once the Americans are gone.
This might be the case, but questions remain. One relates to the fate of
American trainers, who, according to the SOFA, will be allowed to stay inside
towns and cities to help train the Iraqi army. What if these Americans are
attacked? Can the US send reinforcements to support or defend them? Logically,
this would need permission from the central government in Baghdad, and details
on how that will be obtained are still to be debated. When asked how the US
would react if its remaining non-military personnel were attacked, Hill noted,
"We always have the right of self-defense." He did not elaborate and obviously
did not have a clear answer.
Shi'ites, contrary to what the George W Bush administration might have
believed, did not make the American interlude in Iraq a picnic and there were
strong limits to how cooperative they were in the post-Saddam era. Although
they supported the toppling of Saddam, the Shi'ites remained either Arab
nationalists at heart, wanting to see Iraq part of the Arab nation, free of
foreign control, or pro-Iranian, wanting to manipulate the occupation to fit
their needs and then combat it from within.
The Shi'ites, having seen Saddam, a hated traditional enemy, and his Sunni
Ba'athists driven from power, eventually won control of the state in the
elections of 2005. The post-Saddam order led to the dramatic rise of Shi'ite
politicians like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council
(SIIC), his chief ally Adel Abdul-Mehdi, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Ibrahim
al-Jaafary and Maliki, who became premier in 2006.
None of these men would have ever made it to top leadership posts if it were
not for the toppling of Saddam. All of them initially, including Maliki (who
has changed fundamentally) originally aimed to establish an Iran-like
Muqtada wanted Iraq independent of Iranian control, however, and was more
inclined towards the Arab world, while Hakim wanted it to become a satellite
state for Iran. At one point, during the civil war of 2006-2007, these men
transformed into warlords, similar to the ones famed in Lebanon during its long
civil war, supporting militias to strike at Sunni communities, mosques and
The Ministry of Interior, for example, held by the SIIC since 2005, used its
police and dungeons to take revenge on a community that had produced Saddam in
the 1970s. There is no guarantee that this will become a thing of the past,
once the Americans depart, except that during January provincial elections,
voters seemed "wiser" - voting for politicians who promised a state of law and
order, rather than one built on confessional fiefdoms.
During that election, the SIIC lost eight of the 11 provinces it had once
commanded, showing that sectarian loyalties were eroding. Another brake that
such malpractices will not be repeated is an Arab desire to increase its
presence in Iraq, through business contracts and diplomatic representation, so
that the country does not remain an Iranian satellite. From where things stand
inside Iran, it is likely that as long as the country remains ablaze with
riots, it will be too distracted to meddle in Iraqi affairs.
Sunni awareness is at its peak in Iraq. They boycotted the elections of 2005 -
sulking at the overthrow of Saddam - and paid a high price by being sidelined
from the political process and gaining only a minority in parliament. They have
seemingly learned their lesson and plan a strong comeback in the January 2010
Sunnis - under the urging of Saudi Arabia and Syria - will not stage any more
boycotts and plan on taking back the state through government institutions.
They think that with the US umbrella gone, and the Iranian one temporarily in
limbo, they will have the upper hand over their Shiite compatriots.
The results of the latest provincial elections speak volumes of what the Sunnis
can do - democratically - if they engage in the political process. In January,
they voted in large numbers - even in hotbeds of the so-called Sunni
insurgency, like Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. What they will have to do though
is lay down their arms, provided the Shi'ites do the same, since theoretically
they no longer have anybody to fight in towns and cities, now that the
Americans are leaving.
The future of Iraq, however, will remain strongly linked to the regional
balance of power between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United States.
Certainly a vacuum will be left once the Americans leave, and this vacuum will
be filled either by the Saudis or Iranians. Riyadh wants a united Iraq, free of
all kinds of militia, bent on combating al-Qaeda, independent of Iranian
control. They will never tolerate a stronger Shi'ite power, or an autonomous
Shi'ite district in southern Iraq, as several of Iran's proxies have asked,
Iran wants an Iraq that is allied to Tehran, more so than the Arab world,
dominated by religiously driven Shi'ite politicians who are ready to side with
the Iranians in its "cold war" with the US.
The US, which will still command a strong influence until 2012, finds itself
closer to the Saudi agenda than the Iranian one. The same applies to Syria.
What the future holds, after June 30, will be in the hands of these regional
and international heavyweights, to the displeasure - or in some cases pleasure
- of Iraqi statesmen.