Uncertainty looms large in Iraq as US leaves

Security fears, shaky politics and stagnant economy have Iraqis concerned about the future of their country.

Barbed wire in Iraq

American troops are set to leave Iraq later this month, after nearly nine years of war [GALLO/GETTY]

Baghdad, Iraq –  Not everyone in Iraq was convinced on Monday when United States President Barack Obama announced in Washington: “After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq ends this month.”

Some Iraqis cast an eye at the US convoys still trundling along their country’s roads and highways. Others took note of the thousands of diplomats and armed contractors who will remain at the sprawling US embassy in Baghdad. Images such as these have led to doubts that America’s nearly nine-year occupation is actually ending.

Barring some unforeseen circumstances, however, the last American soldiers really will leave Iraq within the next two weeks.

The US military presence in Iraq, once a force of more than 170,000, has already dwindled to 5,500 troops stationed on just three bases. A small contingent of a few hundred soldiers will remain at the embassy in Baghdad.

The war cost America $800bn, according to the Pentagon, and scholars say the total costs may eventually top $3 trillion. Nearly 4,500 American troops were killed, with tens of thousands more injured; the human toll for Iraqis has been far higher, with more than 100,000 civilians and members of the security forces killed since 2003. Millions more have been wounded or forced from their homes.

After all of that, the US leaves behind an Iraq visibly scarred and struggling to regain a sense of normalcy, let alone its once-prominent stature in the Arab world.

Traffic jams clog Baghdad’s streets as cars wait to pass through the city’s innumerable checkpoints. Neighbourhoods remain sealed off by concrete walls and mountains of barbed wire. Assassinations, roadside bombings and other outbreaks of violence still continue with chilling regularity.

The country has calmed since 2005 and 2006, but the atmosphere remains tense; Iraq is still riven by sectarian divisions and ruled by what some see as an increasingly authoritarian government. 

As the US prepares to withdraw, the dominant emotion in the streets is not happiness, but apprehension. There is real fear from Iraqis of all stripes that violence will resume, the economy will continue to stagnate, and that their country will crack apart.

‘Goals achieved’

Even so, none of those worries made it into Monday’s press conference. Obama strongly endorsed his Iraqi counterpart, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and praised him as the “leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq”.  

Maliki, in turn, lauded his government’s “proven success” in improving security.

“This withdrawal… indicates success. It is not like what others have said, that it was negative,” he said. “The goals that we established were achieved.”

Many Iraqis are still unsure what those goals were. The US invaded in 2003 to topple a regime which then-president George Bush accused of producing “weapons of mass destruction”.

The weapons were never found, and Washington shopped around a variety of other motives: The US government stressed its desire to bring democracy to Iraq, and also said it was there to fight al-Qaeda, which experts have said did not exist in Iraq before the US-led invasion. Critics attributed the invasion to a bid to seize Iraq’s vast oil reserves.

James Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Iraq, opted for the security argument in an interview with Al Jazeera last week.

“The most important [goal] has been achieved,” he said, “and that was to eliminate Iraq as the most important threat to regional security in the Middle East.”

The war succeeded in ending Saddam Hussein’s 30-year dictatorship and installing a nominally democratic government in its place. And few would consider the “new Iraq” a threat to its neighbours: The country remains virtually defenceless to external threats.

The Iraqi air force has three combat airplanes, and officers say they won’t be able to defend Iraq’s airspace until 2020. Intelligence capacity is limited and soldiers routinely complain of equipment shortages, even for basic items like bullets.

The Iraqi economy, meanwhile, shattered by decades of war and sanctions, is far from rebuilt. Unemployment officially stands at around 16 per cent. Many Iraqis say the real number is nearly twice that high, especially among young Iraqis. The only reliable employer is the government, which provides jobs for nearly 40 per cent of the workforce.

The US and other donors have spent billions of dollars in Iraq since 2003, but the effects are difficult to see. Power cuts are routine, and millions of Iraqis lack regular access to clean water, proper hospitals, or basic infrastructure.

“They [the Americans] succeeded in freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of that regime,” said Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister. “Beyond that, [there were] many, many failures and mistakes. The occupation was a curse, it didn’t work.”

‘Trust gap’

The legacy of that “curse” seems likely to endure for years, perhaps decades. The sectarian warfare of 2005 and 2006 has quieted, partly because the Iraqi security forces have improved, partly because many once-mixed neighbourhoods are now far more homogeneous.

It seems that everyone in Iraq was affected by the war and subsequent occupation. A woman in Waziriyah shows pictures of her son, missing since 2006, when he was kidnapped by armed gunmen. A man from Diyala curses his neighbors, who he believes killed three of his children.

“There is a trust gap now, between each side,” said Shukri Jabbar Hassan, a Shia who fled his home near Adhamiyah in 2006 after Sunni militants torched his clothing store. He now lives in Baghdad’s Ur neighbourhood, in a camp for displaced people. “Nobody can go back,” he said.

Rifts persist not just between individuals: entire provinces are discussing plans to become semi-autonomous from the central government.

In the south, some residents of oil-rich Basra complain of receiving an unfair share of energy revenues. In western and central Iraq, many Sunnis want a measure of independence from the Shia-dominated government.

Iraqis worry that their shaky political consensus – it took more than nine months to form a government after elections last year – is in danger of falling apart.

“Already, in the lead to the withdrawal… you’ve seen a number of signs that this consensus is showing strains,” Zebari said.

Not all Iraqis fear a security vacuum: Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shia cleric, has said that Iraqis are capable of defending themselves. Maliki has made similar comments. But on the streets, even in Shia neighbourhoods where these leaders hold sway, there is uncertainty. Few Iraqis would describe their country, as Obama did on Monday, as a model for the region.

“I hope for the best,” said Suhad Saad, 19, a student at a music academy in the Mansour district. “But I have no idea about the future of Iraq. I don’t know what is going to happen.”

Source: Al Jazeera