By Sam Dagher
August 27, 2010
BAGHDAD—Sheikh Fawzi Abdullah, imam of a Sunni mosque in the capital city’s Amil section, looks with relief on the uneasy peace that has settled over his neighborhood.
Once-shuttered markets are bustling. Iraqi security forces control the enclave’s streets. Displaced families have returned home to rebuild their lives.
“God willing, the fitna will never return,” Mr. Abdullah says, using an Arabic word for the internal discord that nearly ripped Iraq apart after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. At the height of the sectarian bloodshed, Amil, one of several mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in southwestern Baghdad, was at the front lines of some of the worst fighting between armed groups from the two Muslim sects.
As the U.S. declares an official end to its combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday, having cut its troops to fewer than 50,000, the outlook for the country is better than it was three years ago. And yet Amil, like the rest of Iraq, is watching with mixed emotions. In addition to hope, there is anger, disappointment at what the U.S. has achieved and a sense of plunging into the unknown.
Many here—majority Shiite Arabs, minority Sunni Arabs, as well as ethnic Kurds—are happy to see Saddam Hussein’s regime gone. They’ve welcomed the uncertain emergence of long-denied civil liberties, such as the right to vote in free elections. They credit a recent surge of U.S. forces into Baghdad and surrounding provinces with taming the near-civil war that engulfed the country. And there are positive signs for the future. International oil companies are scrambling to invest, promising a boost in petroleum revenues. A nascent democracy, albeit fractious, has survived.
But some Iraqis also accuse America of clumsily dismantling Mr. Hussein’s power structure and triggering three years of sectarian violence, a legacy that continues to rattle Iraq.
In a briefing Thursday, new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey said America wasn’t “abandoning Iraq,” and spoke of an “evolution” in the relationship with Baghdad with a focus on military, economic and social cooperation. But he warned of serious risks. “The potential for violence, what I would characterize now primarily as terrorist acts here, is quite significant.”
Since last August, insurgents have mounted a series of coordinated attacks that have threatened the country’s delicate democratic institutions afresh. On Wednesday, more than a dozen attacks across the country—including bombing and targeted assassinations—killed more than 50, demonstrating that insurgents retain the ability to strike nearly at will and anywhere.
This comes as political feuding has gridlocked Baghdad since the March parliamentary elections. A coalition of mostly Shiite candidates, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, barely lost out to a rival group led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that includes many prominent Sunnis. Neither side has been able to cobble together a majority to form a new government, and instead have traded blame for the violence.
Adding to Iraqis’ concerns are a still-simmering feud between the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and the possibility that an emboldened Iran will try to project power in Baghdad soon after U.S. troops shut the door behind them.
Violence could subside and politics stabilize enough that the last of America’s troops will head home with history on their side. All American soldiers are slated to depart by the end of 2011, leaving a limited time for the government to clean up Iraq’s many problems before the U.S. completes its withdrawal.
U.S. officials are framing Iraq as a success. Over the weekend, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno said he was confident in Iraqi security forces’ ability to take over. Iraq is “moving forward along every line,” Gen. Odierno told CNN’s “State of Union” program on Sunday. “It’s moving forward a little bit economically. Its security forces are improving. Its diplomatic efforts are improving. Its governmental functions are improving.”
Some of Washington’s one-time allies here disagree.
“The idea that Iraq is being left in a good position is utter nonsense,” says Adnan Pachachi, a senior Iraqi statesman who served on the Governing Council, a body created by the U.S. occupation immediately after the 2003 invasion. He said American officials shouldn’t “delude themselves” about the readiness of Iraq’s security forces.
A still-thriving insurgency has seized on the drawdown as a sign of American defeat. A spokesman claiming to represent one Iraqi insurgent group told the Al-Jazeera satellite channel last week that U.S. troops were leaving like “thieves,” not “triumphant armies.”
One problem the Americans leave behind is a security vacuum that threatens its accomplishments, including a troop surge that helped pull Iraq out of the near-civil war that started in 2006. Violence is much lower than it was, but it has ticked back up to 2008 levels, according to Iraqi estimates.
Those figures are disputed by U.S. officials, but recent attacks—targeting government buildings, army facilities and police—have shaken confidence. Iraq’s army and security forces, which American commanders helped train and fund, appear overwhelmed by the violence.
Officials here blame the attacks on a hodge-podge of insurgents, including Sunni extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Shiite factions backed by Iran. Layered on top of that are networks tied to organized crime or alleged to be serving political agendas.
In addition to the urban centers of Baghdad and Mosul, areas like Diyala, northeast of the capital, are beset by violence. U.S. officials say insurgents have tried to exploit the central government’s dispute with the Kurdistan region over oil rights and territory. They say insurgents are targeting both sides, in the hopes of drawing the two into open conflict. Amid fears of an all-out Arab-Kurd conflict, American soldiers will continue to man joint checkpoints with Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish forces along this northern fault-line after the end of August.
An even bigger worry is Iran. In Saddam Hussein’s reign, Iran was a place of haven for many of the Iraqi Shiite politicians and traditionally pro-American Kurds like Iraqi President Jalal Talabani who are negotiating to form a government. In the current political impasse, Iran is actively pushing several of these leaders to form a broad Shiite coalition to govern, similar to the one that won elections in 2005 polls, according to Iraqi politicians. Iran denies it is meddling.
Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd and Iraq’s current foreign minister, predicts that the U.S. withdrawal will incite powerful neighbors like Iran, Turkey and others to “test the waters” and insert themselves even further into the country’s affairs. “Most of the regional countries are involved and engaged in our daily political life,” says Mr. Zebari.
Iran’s emergence as a power player in Baghdad underscores a troubling shift across the region. When the U.S. knocked out Mr. Hussein, it also removed a long-standing check on Tehran’s regional ambitions. The two fought a bloody war through much of the 1980s and remained bitter enemies until 2003.
The Mideast’s long-time power brokers and U.S allies, Sunni-Arab dominated Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had also been bulwarks against Iranian ambitions in the region. But the unpopular American war in Iraq threatened legitimacy at home. And Cairo and Riyadh struggled to effectively counter Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Gaza, where Iranian-backed groups Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively, strengthened their power base.
“I think we are at a period where … the Arabs are not making their weight felt on regional and international issues the way that they once did,” said Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “There is almost a sense of, ‘we didn’t like 2003 and pretend it didn’t happen, and we are just going to ignore what goes on in Iraq.’”
That has former Iraqi officials like Raad al-Hamdani, once a commander of the Republican Guard during Mr. Hussein’s regime, bitter that the U.S. appears to be abandoning Iraq when Baghdad most needs help. The U.S. withdrawal is a “repudiation by the United States of its moral, legal and historic obligations toward Iraq,” says Mr. Hamdani, now a military strategist based in Jordan.
Still, the American invasion, occupation and reconstruction has changed many aspects of Iraq for the better. The country has held three national elections and provincial and regional elections. Iraqis adopted a new constitution with a more progressive bill of rights than most countries in the Middle East.
Living standards for many Iraqis have risen and the promise of greater prosperity looms, especially with the entry of companies eager to tap the country’s oil riches. As of August, there were more than 37,000 companies registered in Iraq compared to about 8,500 before 2003, according to the Ministry of Trade.
Iraqis also now travel abroad freely, own cellular telephones and have access to satellite TV and the Internet—activities tightly controlled under Mr. Hussein’s regime.
That all comes with a heavy toll. Some 113,616 civilians have been killed in acts of violence since the U.S.-led invasion, according to the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank, which collates official and unofficial data. Thousands of people remain missing, according to Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry.
Three-quarters of the 1.55 million Iraqis displaced by the sectarian conflict that started in 2006 haven’t returned home yet, and an estimated 1.5 million live in neighboring countries, according to figures released in June by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Iraq’s minorities, including the Christians, have largely been driven out of the country.
Almost a quarter of all Iraqis live in poverty, spending less than 2,500 dinars ($2.20) per day, and possibly more are unemployed, according to a report published by the Iraqi government and the United Nations this month. The report says almost 75% of households don’t have access to the public sewage system, while 80% of the potable water supply is unfit to drink. Iraq is among the top five most corrupt countries in the world, according to a 2009 report by Transparency International.
Iraq’s woes began before the Americans arrived and have accumulated over years of war with neighboring countries and international sanctions. But many Iraqis believe Mr. Hussein’s regime was replaced with a government unable—or worse, uninterested—in meeting their most urgent needs.
“We are creating a state of parasites,” says Hanaa Edwar, the head of the Al-Amal Association, an Iraqi nongovernmental organization working in Baghdad since 2003.
In a predominantly Shiite section of Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood, next to Amil, Ali Majid recalls how the U.S.-led invasion changed his life—and then changed it again, and again. Before 2003, Mr. Majid juggled odd jobs to make ends meet. After the invasion, he made enough money working construction as a subcontractor for American companies to build a spacious new home for his wife and five children.
During the worst of the sectarian violence in 2006, he moved his family to neighboring Syria while he worked on an American base in Baghdad. The family returned in 2008.
Mr. Majid’s company, Steps to Success, is now working on an Iraqi government electricity project south of Baghdad and two private-sector hotel projects in the capital. He owns several homes, drives an SUV and travels frequently abroad, including to China, where he says he does a lot of business.
Now, he’s worried again. With the departure of the bulk of U.S. troops from Iraq, Mr. Majid says he lacks confidence in the future or the country’s feuding political leaders. Even as he mulls a new addition to his home, he is making plans to leave if security starts to deteriorate: “The question will be whether we can make it to the border fast enough.”
—Margaret Coker, Munaf Ammar, Hassan Haffidh and Jabbar Yaseen contributed to this article.