US to end Iraq combat mission as bloodshed spikes
United States forces are set to end their combat mission in Iraq within days despite an upsurge in deadly attacks that has raised doubts about the conflict-torn country’s ability to defend itself against insurgents.
A major reduction in American troops in recent months has coincided with a surge in car bombings and shootings that has targeted the Iraqi forces who have steadily taken over security responsibilities from the US military since 2009.
The latest violence has seen hundreds of people killed, including a high number of police, but Washington has steadfastly continued to pull troops out of the country ahead of a complete military exit at the end of next year.
Although the unrest is not on the same scale as in 2006 and 2007 when sectarian conflict raged alongside the anti-US insurgency, about 300 people have been killed each month this year and July was the deadliest since May 2008.
The rise in attacks also comes as Iraq wrestles with political animosities that have seen no new government formed since an inconclusive general election almost six months ago.
The caretaker government has said the latest bloodshed is a last-ditch effort by militants to undermine Iraq’s fledgling democracy more than seven years after the US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.
But the political deadlock between squabbling politicians seen by ordinary Iraqis as more interested in their own ambitions than the good of the people, has highlighted concern that democracy may not take root.
US President Barack Obama declared shortly after taking office last year that the US combat mission in Iraq would end on August 31, after which American troops would take on a training and advisory role.
There are now 49 700 US soldiers in Iraq, less than a third of the peak figure of almost 170 000 during the US “surge” of 2007, when Iraq was in the throes of brutal Shi’ite-Sunni violence that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The top US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has said the new force strength will be maintained “through next summer” before troop numbers fall towards zero by the December 2011 withdrawal deadline.
“There are still problems, but as I go around it is clear it is a much different Iraq today as it was three years ago,” Odierno said during a briefing at his office on August 24.
“The Iraqi security forces are much more capable than they were,” he said, conceding, however, that political progress must be made soon to dampen public anger over the lack of a new government to bolster security and services.
“People are very frustrated. The dangers are there if the politicians forget about that,” Odierno said, denying nevertheless that there was any significant risk of a coup by senior Iraqi army officers.
“The generals have stayed neutral ... I think they want the political process to work. The issue is who the [political] leaders are,” he added. “The people don’t want any potential for a strong-armed dictator.”
But Iraq’s top army officer, Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari, warned on August 11 that a complete withdrawal of US troops at the end of next year would be premature and demanded a change of tack from the country’s politicians.
“At this point, the withdrawal [of US forces] is going well, because they are still here,” Zebari told Agence France-Presse.
“But the problem will start after 2011—the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011.
“If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.”
‘The problem is the Iraqi politicians’
Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, agreed with Odierno’s assessment, saying it was the right time “for US forces to come home”.
“The withdrawal of US forces will provide increased space for militant groups, but the real problem is Iraqi political deadlock,” Fishman said
“The Iraqi security forces are strong enough. The problem is the Iraqi politicians, and the US cannot resolve their disputes.”
Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was narrowly defeated by former premier Iyad Allawi in the March 7 election but the vote was shared between an array of rival blocs forcing both men to look for coalition partners.
Neither al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who leads the State of Law Alliance, or Allawi, also Shi’ite but leader of a broadly secular coalition with strong Sunni Arab backing, has managed to secure a majority in the 325-seat Parliament.
Michael O’Hanlon, an Iraq specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the country’s future would not be decided by the number of American troops on the ground but by political will, or the lack of it.
“If a coalition government is not formed soon, or if someone makes an extra-legal grab for power of some type, many of the sectarian wounds that had begun to heal may reopen,” O’Hanlon warned.
“Iraqis have to make the tough calls here. I remain hopeful, but concerned.”—AFP