Practically nothing is expected to change in Iraq despite Barack Obama's reiteration of his position on troop withdrawal.
SOON after assuming office almost a year and a half ago, President Barack Obama pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq before September 1, 2010. He has now reiterated his position on the timetable for the withdrawal of troops. In a speech in Atlanta to disabled U.S. Army veterans on August 2, he stated categorically that America's combat mission in Iraq would wind up before the end of the month. He also promised to adhere to the next deadline, of removing all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. But Obama's assertions have been met with scepticism at home and trepidation among influential sections of the governing Iraqi elite.
In the speech he made on February 27, 2009, Obama said he had chosen a timeline that would remove all combat troops by the end of August 2010. But in his Atlanta speech, there was no specific mention of removing all combat troops from Iraq, but only vague talk of ending the combat mission there. After August, there will still be 50,000 U.S. troops left in Iraq. This is double the number of American troops in South Korea. Then there is the additional presence of more than 100,000 U.S.-financed contractors. Many of them are military personnel who have retired from the U.S. Army. People with a military background from countries such as Uganda, Peru and Colombia, which are friendly to the U.S., serve as contractors, read mercenaries, in Iraq.Anti-terrorism missions
The Obama administration states that it will advise and assist the Iraqi Army in anti-terrorism missions and continue the training programmes. This is likely to continue beyond 2011 when all U.S. troops are supposed to vacate Iraqi territory. Indications are that combat operations involving U.S. forces will continue side by side with the training. And even if the American troops are actually withdrawn, they will anyway be stationed a stone's throw away, in Kuwait and neighbouring Gulf countries. Under the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the U.S. and Iraq, the U.S. has full control over Iraqi airspace.
U.S. officials have said that American troops will engage in offensive combat activities if requested by the Iraqi Army. U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates had made it clear in early 2009 itself that American transition forces remaining in Iraq after September 2010 would no longer be called combat brigades but advisory and assistance brigades. The idea was the brainchild of Gen. David Petraeus, who was loath to see the American combat mission in Iraq coming to a precipitate end. The Pentagon now seems to have prevailed over the Obama administration to keep the U.S. military in Iraq beyond 2011, the year in which all U.S. troops have to withdraw according to the agreement with the Iraqi government in 2008.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told The Washington Post soon after that agreement that he would like a U.S. force of around 35,000 to be in Iraq until at least 2015. Ryan C. Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, a George Bush appointee, told The New York Times that American troops would have to be in Iraq for a long period of time even if it is solely in support of the U.S. weapons systems. Crocker, who was in Iraq until 2009 and was present when the withdrawal agreement was signed with the Iraqi government, said that even when negotiations were going on with the Iraqi government, it was considered likely that there would be a small presence of American troops in the country much beyond the withdrawal date.
U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden has suggested on several occasions that it is not in his country's national interests to withdraw its troops completely from Iraq. The Obama administration has sold Iraq expensive weapons systems and may be on the verge of arming the Iraqi Air Force with F-16 fighters. American officials say that the sale of high tech weaponry itself necessitates the prolonged stay of U.S. soldiers and contractors in Iraq. The Iraqi troops, they claim, will take a long time to gain the expertise to handle the sophisticated weaponry. The U.S. hopes that training and arming the Iraqi personnel will help in the creation of a quisling army.
James F. Jeffrey, the newly appointed American Ambassador to Iraq, has said that America's diplomatic presence all over Iraq should continue for another three to five years after the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops in 2011, despite the pledge made by Obama. In June this year, the U.S. State Department requested the creation of a special, combat-ready protection force to ensure the safety of its personnel deployed in Iraq after the planned withdrawal of forces in 2012.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that she wants the number of military contractors protecting diplomatic personnel in the five enduring presence posts in Iraq increased from 2,700 to 7,000. After Obama's speech, the U.S. Army spokesman in Iraq said that in practical terms, nothing will change in Iraq. Nuri al Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, recently acknowledged that U.S. forces would have to stay much beyond 2011 to train the 660,000-strong Iraqi Army, the police force and the pro-government militias.
The U.S. Embassy in Iraq will be one of the largest diplomatic establishments Washington has worldwide. The embassy, which is being built at a cost of $740 million, will house 800 personnel. It is located within the Green Zone in Baghdad and is the size of the Vatican.
The U.S. also has 94 big and small military bases in the country. It is unlikely that Washington will abandon them in a hurry for a variety of reasons, the most important being the hold the West has re-established over Iraqi oil. Sixty per cent of Iraq's oil is now once again under foreign control, that too under contracts that are valid for the next 20 years. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia. Western oil companies that were expelled by Saddam Hussein now play a big role in the production and export of Iraqi crude.
To bolster American claims that there will be chaos if the U.S. military leaves, Iraq's most senior military official, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, said in the second week of August that his forces were not in a position to secure the country until 2020 and asked the U.S. military to delay its withdrawal plans and hang on to at least some of its military bases. Zebari is a Kurd.
The Kurds, who run northern Iraq as a quasi-independent state, fear that early American military withdrawal will strengthen the hands of Arab nationalists, who are unwilling to give up important cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul. The American forces have strengthened their presence in Kirkuk, an important oil refining centre, to help the Kurdish forces stave off attacks from the resistance forces. Resistance fighters led by Izzat Ibrahim, who was Saddam's senior-most deputy, have announced the beginning of a new offensive against the Americans and their local Kurdish and Shia allies.
However, another close aide of Saddam Hussein, his long-serving Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, warned from his prison cell that an American military withdrawal at this juncture would be catastrophic for the Iraqi nation. Aziz told a British newspaper that the U.S. had destroyed the Iraqi nation and that America should leave only after rebuilding the institutions of government and the civilian infrastructure its brutal invasion and occupation had destroyed. Aziz, like many secular Iraqis, fear that if the Americans leave the country, the resultant vacuum will get filled by sectarian forces that are inimical to the secular goals espoused by the Baath Party.
Meanwhile, the four million displaced Iraqis see no light at the end of the tunnel. After seven years of occupation, the infrastructure of the country remains devastated. Electricity supply and access to clean drinking water for the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are sporadic at best. The security situation remains critical. Baghdad is a city that is divided by countless blast walls and checkpoints. July saw a dramatic rise in suicide bombings and civilian casualties. The death toll was the highest recorded in a month in the past two years. Even the American military has conceded that on an average 15 militant attacks take place every day.
There are also credible reports that Al Qaeda is making a comeback in Iraq. In the last week of July, according to reports in the Arab media, Al Qaeda militants struck at the heart of Baghdad, killing 16 members of the Iraqi security forces and briefly planting the organisation's flag in the heart of the Iraqi capital.
Al Qaeda also claimed responsibility for the bombing of the offices of Al Arabiya television channel in July, which killed six people. The Sahwas, Sunni fighters who defected from Al Qaeda and joined up with the American forces, face the brunt of the militant attacks. In the military surge ordered by the Bush administration, they helped the Americans score some fleeting military victories over the resistance forces. Now things seem to be back at square one in Iraq.