Both the United States and Iraq can rightly celebrate this week’s withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq’s cities and towns. But serious questions remain as the present force of about 130,000 soon begins a gradual drawdown toward the scheduled complete departure from the country by the end of next year.
Getting into this war, which is in its seventh year, was a lot easier than winding it down. Despite their change in mission and, for some, location, U.S. troops will continue to play a crucial role as Iraq continues its transition to a democratic government.
With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from cities to their bases comes the tough final stage of helping the Iraqis rebuild and govern their country. Most urgently, they must control the still-festering enmity between the majority Shiites who now rule the country and the minority Sunnis that Saddam Hussein mobilized to run his dictatorship. More tension persists between the Kurds that Hussein drove out of northern Iraq and the Sunni Arabs that replaced them.
Incidents of violence remain sharply down, but in June extremists killed 300 Iraqis and 10 Americans. Security is still such a problem that a military parade marking the withdrawal had to be held inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, with the Iraqi public and American news organizations barred from entry.
The Iraqi Army is still far from prepared to deal with outbreaks and remove the deadly roadside bombs planted by insurgents. U.S. patrols continue to help, but always moving jointly with Iraqi forces. U.S. troops supply intelligence and logistics to the Iraqis, and while being removed to their garrisons are ready on call from the Iraqis in emergencies. In a longer range, U.S. advisers are preparing to help Iraq build a navy and air force.
Although Iraqi officials boast that they are already capable of running their country, they are slow to tackle several urgent matters. The Iraqi Parliament still has not passed a law to divide the lucrative revenues of its oil industry. It must also enact an election law for the January national elections. It has yet to provide jobs for most of the nearly 100,000 members of Sunni “Awakening Councils,” who switched sides and helped pacify the country. And some 4 million Iraqi refugees are still mostly uprooted from their homes.
The United States continues to provide security for its corps of advisers operating throughout the country. It also must help protect the developing new Iraqi nation from interference by its neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria.
Essentially, Iraq’s future is now up to the Iraqis, but, some responsibility remains with the United States, whose invasion and occupation figured decisively in most of the country’s present problems and opportunities. The U.S. and its military will continue to play a leading role in moving Iraq toward the democratic model in the Middle East that former President Bush envisioned.