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US-IRAQ: Troops Leave Cities, as Questions Remain

Jared Levy

WASHINGTON, Jun 30 2009 (IPS) - U.S. combat troops pulled out of most Iraqi cities Monday, a day before the Jun. 30 deadline for their withdrawal in accordance with the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) ratified by the Iraqi parliament in November 2008.

Iraqi security forces will step in to fill the vacuum left by the diminished U.S. military presence.

Publicly, U.S. military officials are supportive of the transition to greater authority for the Iraqi security apparatuses. In remarks to the cable news channel CNN on Sunday, the top U.S. general in Iraq, Ray Odierno, voiced his support for the change.

“From a military and security standpoint, it’s time for us to move out of the cities,” said Odierno. “As for the Iraqis, I do believe they’re ready… We see constant improvement in the security forces… I believe this is the time for them to take ultimate responsibility.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen joined Odierno in lauding the transition. “All the engagement I’ve had with General Odierno and [Central Command chief] General [David] Petraeus is that the Iraqi security forces are ready for this. We’ve been out of many of the cities, I think, for over a year.”

However, many questions remain as to whether Iraqi security forces are up to the task of keeping the peace in Iraq. Last week, in the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal, several attacks resulted in the combined deaths of over 200 civilians.

The violence primarily targeted Shi’a neighbourhoods. It is widely assumed that Sunni extremists are behind the attacks with their motive to restart the sectarian civil war that broke out in Iraq after the bombing of the Shiite Samarra mosque in 2006.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has celebrated the U.S. withdrawal, calling it a “great victory” over occupation. In remarks at a press conference last Saturday, Maliki said, “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.”

Not all Iraqis are so optimistic. In remarks to The New York Times, former Iraqi National Security Advisor and current Shi’a legislator Qassim Daoud said, “I just hope the prime minister realises we don’t have a competent security force yet.”

Daoud says the SOFA, which calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011, “needs to be extended until 2020, 2025.”

Indeed, nobody expects U.S. soldiers to disappear from sight as a result of the Jun. 30 withdrawal. “On Jul. 1, we’re not going to see this big puff of smoke, everyone leaving the cities,” U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Stephen Lanza recently said.

In a recent lecture at the Middle East Institute (MEI), Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Dr. John Nagl, head of the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), said that a large number of U.S. combat troops will become “trainers” following the withdrawal, thus allowing them to remain in cities. Nagl acknowledged that the difference between the two may not be distinguishable to the untrained eye.

Nagl went on to say that he has deep concerns about the security situation in Iraq going forward, due in part to “politically motivated decisions” by Maliki. “I believe the Iraqi government will come to its senses in 2010 or 2011 in the interest of their people,” said Nagl, implying that they will amend the SOFA to allow for a continued U.S. military presence.

There is a consensus that there will likely be an uptick in violence as insurgents try to take advantage of the reduced U.S. security presence. In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior acknowledged, “We expect an increase in attacks.”

Nagl also expects attacks to continue, but he doubts that suicide attacks will achieve the perpetrators’ aims of re-igniting sectarian strife. “The human cost is horrible, but these attacks are not strategically destabilising,” he said.

Whether Nagl is correct on this last point remains to be seen. A large trust deficit remains between much of Iraq’s Sunni population and the Iraqi security forces, which Sunnis widely view as a political tool of the Shiite-dominated government. For the bombing attacks not to be strategically destabilising, this trust deficit must be addressed.

The Awakening Movement, also known as the Sons of Iraq – groups of former Sunni insurgents who joined forces with the U.S. to combat al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other groups starting in 2007 – have not been given the state security jobs they believed were promised to them when they relinquished anti-government fighting in favour of siding with the U.S.

Coupled with continued reports of abuses of Sunni communities by security services, the failure to incorporate Sahwa fighters leaves some Iraqis fearful at the prospect of a diminished U.S. presence.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, a Sunni resident of Baghdad voiced his concern about the departure of U.S. combat troops: “I don’t think our soldiers can control the situation. It is still better to have the Americans here. They are our quality insurance for our own forces.”

Indeed, the failure to broadly incorporate the Sunni militiamen, who assisted the U.S. army in the fight against AQI, into the Iraqi security services may prove costly in the coming weeks and months.

As many Sahwa leaders keep a low profile due to continued disagreement with the Maliki government, they will have less of an ability – and possibly desire – to assist in halting the wave of attacks that is likely to coincide with the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sunni-Shi’a sectarian strife is not the only concern as U.S. forces leave the cities of Iraq. Tensions continue to brew between Arabs and Kurds in areas of northern Iraq that are heavily populated by Kurds, but fall outside the borders of the area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

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