x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iraq reclaims the streets

On the day that American troops withdrew from every city across Iraq, a car bombing in Kirkuk highlighted the fragile security situation facing the Iraqi government as it asserted its expanding sovereign power. While US patrols on the streets of Baghdad have become uncommon over the last few months, henceforth supply convoys for the Green Zone will only take place at night.

On the day that American troops withdrew from every city across Iraq, a car bomb in Kirkuk killed at least 41 people and wounded 120 others, according to Bloomberg. The bombing, coming in the wake of series of recent deadly attacks, highlighted the fragile security situation as the Iraqi government asserts its expanding sovereign power. In The Guardian, Jonathan Steele noted that as the troops move out, "the gulf between American and Iraqi perceptions of their departure remained as wide as they were over their arrival in April 2003. Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has called the negotiated US retreat a great victory and compared it to the Iraqi rebellion against the British in 1920. Thousands of Iraqis celebrated what the government designated as National Sovereignty Day, hanging out flags, waving flowers and dancing in the streets in the kind of celebration that Washington's neocons had hoped to see six and a half years ago when US troops entered Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein. Instead of happening then, the joy of liberation is bursting out now." Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent, said: "For months, it has been uncommon to see US patrols on the streets in Baghdad, though they have been more visible in Mosul in northern Iraq where there is more fighting. "The Pentagon is intent on avoiding any dramatic television pictures showing Americans in retreat which might stir memories of the fall of Saigon in 1975. It will keep 130,000 soldiers in bases outside urban areas until September and then steadily withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by August 2010 and remaining forces by the end of 2011. "The US is already seeing its power drain away as Iraqis take on board that American troops really are going. Mr Maliki is seeking to burnish his nationalist credentials by claiming it was he who forced the US to accept a timetable for the end of the occupation during lengthy and rancorous negotiations for a US-Iraq 'status of forces agreement' signed by George Bush last year. President Barack Obama is sticking rigorously to this timetable. "A small number of US troops will remain behind but their presence will be low key and largely invisible. Convoys from Camp Victory, the US base at Baghdad airport, will travel to the Green Zone in central Baghdad only at night. In Mosul, US vehicles must have signs saying they are not part of a combat force. In rural areas, US combat operations can continue only with the permission of the Iraqi government." Iraq's interior minister, Jawad Al Bolani, wrote in The Washington Post: "as the United States shifts its attention from Iraq to Afghanistan and other issues of grave importance, none of us can be lulled into believing that Iraq is a 'mission accomplished'. That sense of security is simply false. June 30 is not an historical endpoint to be celebrated by political philosophers; it is the beginning of a highly uncertain chapter in Iraqi democracy and self-governance. "Recent painful events here demonstrate the challenges ahead. This month we had the sad task of burying one of Iraq's leading moderate politicians, Harith al-Ubaidi, who was brutally shot at a mosque June 12, probably at the hands of al Qa'eda. Large-scale violent attacks such as suicide bombings are down dramatically overall, but as two tragic incidents last week showed, they still occur and still sow chaos and despair. Countries in our region continue to attempt to influence our internal politics to their advantage; the continuing hold on power of the regime in Iran, for example, means continued Iranian support for sympathetic parties and groups in Iraq. Our country's trade minister resigned in May amid allegations of corruption that is reportedly so widespread in Iraq as to be on the scale of a second insurgency. Just this month, I was forced to take action against police officers accused of violating the rights of prisoners. "Corruption and violence are not relics of an overthrown regime in Iraq that exist behind an imaginary line marked 'June 30'. They are threats Iraq must fight every day, now largely on our own." Reuters spoke to a Sunni military commander with a bleak outlook. "[Khalil] Ibrahim, a chain-smoking former military intelligence officer, said he has two main worries. " 'Iran has good relations with our political parties. They run militias. If the US troops complete their withdrawal, Iran will do whatever it wants in Iraq,' he said, scowling. "Shiite-ruled Iran is often accused of arming and funding Shiite militias who have killed Sunnis, a charge Tehran denies. " 'Also, if the Americans pull out, al Qa'eda will return,' Ibrahim said. He knows the Islamist militants better than most. "As leader of a US-backed Sunni Arab guard unit made up of many former insurgents, some of his men fought with the rebels against the US military, before switching sides and helping drive al Qa'eda fighters out of much of Iraq." In The New York Times, Rod Nordland recounted a very brief interview with Maj Gen Fadhil Jameel Birwari, commander of the Iraqi Special Forces' First Brigade, early this month at a celebration of the opening of a base for one of his battalions. "The first and, as it turned out, only question was one everyone is asking with the approach of Tuesday's June 30 deadline for handing most combat duties to Iraqis: Were General Fadhil's counterterrorism soldiers, among the country's most elite, ready to take over from the Americans after they withdraw from all Iraqi cities and towns? " 'We need at least 10 to 20 years with the American Special Forces to get to that level,' he replied in Arabic, or so a United States military interpreter said. "At that, Lt Col Marshal Bridges of the Special Forces stepped in, bristling. 'That's not what he meant,' said the colonel, who does not speak Arabic. 'Sometimes things get lost in translation. I've worked with him for the last 10 months so I know exactly what he meant. What he meant was his forces are ready now but he would like us to stay another 10 to 20 years.' "The interpreter 'corrected' his translation, and General Fadhil smiled, uncomprehending of the dispute, but aware that he had best end the interview. "It was a small but illuminating episode. No doubt, many Iraqi military and police units are competent enough to operate on their own, but most military analysts who have studied the matter will concede that many if not most still are not. 'We need to extend the Sofa' - the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and America - 'to 2020, 2025,' said Qassim Daoud, an independent Shiite legislator and former national security adviser. "He said he believed that the current deadline for total withdrawal, the end of 2011, is unattainable, even though Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki insisted on it when the agreement was negotiated with President George W Bush last year. 'I just hope the prime minister realises we don't have competent security forces yet.' "

pwoodward@thenational.ae