Yes, Iraq is still a war zone

The US might be withdrawing the last of its troops, but yesterday’s formal “end of the war” ceremony illustrated how it isn’t really over, at least not for Iraqis.

This photo is from Thursday’s “flag-casing” ceremony in Baghdad, which marked the formal end of the US military command here. 

Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, spoke at the ceremony: He praised the progress of the Iraqi security forces and said “we created an Iraq that could finally govern and secure itself.”

You’ll notice that the labels on the chairs include not just your name, but the number of the concrete bunker you should hide in if the ceremony is rocketed.

A standard precaution for the military, sure, but it’s a small detail that highlights how Iraq really still is a war zone, despite the US withdrawal.

The day started with an e-mail from one armed group, which said it had fired off several rockets overnight and was aware of the time and place of the ceremony. We had to drive through at least half a dozen checkpoints, both Iraqi and American, before we reached the ceremony.

Blackhawk helicopters and unmanned surveillance drones orbited overhead throughout, and the US dignitaries who attended did not linger long before getting back on their C-17s to fly out.

Less than 4,000 American soldiers remain in Iraq, and the last US military base – Camp Adder, near Nasiriyah – was handed over to Iraqi control on Friday.

But they leave behind a country which is still deeply insecure.

On another note, you’ll see that Maliki’s chair was empty. So was Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s. So were dozens of others reserved for a range of Iraqi officials, civilian and military. 

I don’t want to oversimplify the relationship between the US and Iraqi governments: Maliki just returned from a visit to Washington, after all, where he met with US president Barack Obama. And this ceremony was intended more for an American audience than an Iraqi one.

Still… empty chairs. Lots of them. It says a lot about how Iraqi officials view the American presence here, and the political risks in being publicly associated with it. (Maliki’s decision not to attend certainly isn’t surprising, given the politics of his governing coalition.)

I touched on this a bit yesterday in a piece about the sprawling US embassy in Baghdad: America is simply not popular here, and Iraqis don’t reap any dividends from affiliating themselves with the US.

After nearly nine years of war, Baghdad is still so unsafe that the US worries about incoming fire, and almost none America’s “Iraqi partners” attended the ceremony. Says something, no?

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