x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Is road out of Iraq still paved with wishful thinking?

Analysis The US withdrawal from Iraqi cities is not as simple as it seems - and the days ahead will be critical to the nation's future.

Asked on that fateful April day in 2003 whose idea it was to use a US marine armoured recovery vehicle to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square, the grinning colonel said with a wink: "We just gave them a little help." For the United States, the road into Iraq more than six years ago was paved with both winks and good intentions - some contrived, some real: oust the dictator; rid the country of weapons of mass destruction; establish a beacon of democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

The road out of Iraq, along which US military forces are taking their first steps today by vacating the country's cities, is also paved with winks and good intentions: end US occupation; restore Iraqi sovereignty; let the people of Iraq decide their future. The mantras and self-congratulation are not limited to Washington. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, has declared today a national holiday and proclaimed it "Victory Day", likening the occasion to an early 20th century Iraqi uprising against British troops.

Yet as the US-led invasion and occupation has shown repeatedly, things rarely are as they appear. Mr al Maliki and Barack Obama, the US president, appear enthralled with public relations and gripped by noble aims. In the critical days ahead in Iraq, the question is how much both are based on wishful thinking. Despite Mr al Maliki's civic revelry, Iraq hardly has been "liberated". At least 130,000 US troops are still in Iraq. And while Washington has closed or turned over to the Iraqi government 142 former US installations, US forces will remain at 320 Iraqi locations after today.

Suggestions that Iraqi cities will be free of US soldiers also are misleading. US officials have acknowledged that up to 2,500 US troops will remain in the capital as "advisers". Furthermore, statements about combat operations have been equivocal. The chief US military spokesman, Brig Gen Stephen Lanza, recently said US military missions in Iraqi cities would end today. Gen Lanza then added a critical caveat: under the security accord reached with Baghdad, US troops could intervene at the request of the Iraqi government.

The likelihood of that occurring is high, with last week's deaths of more than 250 people in a series of bombings possibly providing a grim precedent. Both Iraqi and US officials acknowledge that there is likely to be a spike in violence after today, perpetrated by those keen to reignite sectarian violence and discredit and destabilise the government. They also concede that although some units of the Iraqi security forces are capable of operating on their own, many are not.

Stephen Biddle, a one-time adviser to Gen David Petraeus, the former US commander in Iraq, says history points to a precarious future for Iraq. Nearly half of the political settlements reached in civil conflicts between 1940 and 1992 failed within five years of the original ceasefire, Mr Biddle wrote last month in a policy assessment for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Transitions from civil warfare to peace and reconciliation are notoriously volatile and uncertain. Some succeed, but others collapse into renewed fighting," he said, adding: "And the Iraqi transition may be more fragile than most."

As Baghdad and Washington edge towards a 2011 deadline for all US troops to leave Iraq, there are other troubling scenarios, according to Mr Biddle. One is a possible eruption of Arab-Kurdish violence around Kirkuk. Another is the spillover from any Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites. Still another centres on disturbing signs, including the creation of an anti-terrorism task force attached to his office, that Mr al Maliki may be trying to expand his already considerable powers.

As the redeployment and withdrawal of US troops in Iraq gains pace, how determined Mr Obama is to prevent a power vacuum in Iraq is unclear. The White House's commitment to turn over most responsibility for Iraq's security to Iraqis themselves may slow the drain on the US treasury and end Iraq's status as political kryptonite at home. But it by no means ensures success in the creation of a peaceful, prosperous Iraq.

A similar strategy of augmenting local troops with US advisers in South Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s - the so-called "Vietnamisation" strategy - proved successful in shifting some of the burden of prosecuting the war to the South Vietnamese, but they were defeated anyway. Standing in Firdos Square on April 9 2003, it was hard to believe that the United States had much of a clue about the country it was taking responsibility for and the political and social forces it was unleashing.

Today, after the deaths of as many as 200,000 Iraqis and more than 4,300 Americans - as well as a price tage of $3 trillion (Dh11 trillion) - it is by no means certain that the wishful thinking that dominated thinking then has entirely disappeared. @Email:cnelson@thenational.ae