Baghdad For the first time in decades, Iraqis face a future on their own, with neither Saddam Hussein’s iron fist nor the United States’ military might to hold them together. This has been both their dream and nightmare: They wanted American troops (the occupiers) to go, but they wanted American troops (the protectors) to stay.
Now many fear an increase in violence, growing Iranian influence and political turmoil after President Barack Obama’s definitive announcement that all U.S. forces will leave by the end of the year.
In conversations with The Associated Press, Iraqis across the political, religious and geographic spectrum on Saturday questioned what more than eight years of war and tens of thousands of Iraqi and U.S. lives lost had wrought on their country. They wondered how their still struggling democracy could face the challenges ahead.
“Neither the Iraqis nor the Americans have won here,” said Adnan Omar, a Sunni from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Rifaat Khazim, a Shiite from the southern city of Basra, said, “I do not think that this withdrawal will bring anything better to Iraq or that Iraqi leaders will be able to achieve stability and security in this country. Most of the Iraqis yearn now for Saddam’s time. Now, Iraq is defenseless in the face of the threats by the neighboring countries.”
Across the country there was a strong sense of disbelief. The Americans, having spent hundreds of billions of dollars, lost nearly 4,500 troops’ lives and built up sprawling bases as big as many Iraqi cities, would never really leave, many Iraqis thought. Some celebrated the exit of foreign occupiers and the emergence of real sovereignty. But there was also an apprehension, almost a sense of resignation, that things will get worse.
Though greatly reduced from the depths of near civil war from 2006 to 2008, shooting and bombings rattle Iraqis daily. Significantly all the elements from those darkest days remain: al-Qaida militants, Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents. Resentment still simmers among the Sunni Muslim minority over domination by the Shiite majority, Kurds in the north still hold aspirations of breaking away. Despite years of promises of better government services, most of the country gets by on a few hours of electricity a day.
In the eyes of Iraqis, the Americans were both the cause of those woes and the bulwark against them exploding. Many blame the 2003 U.S.-led invasion for unleashing all the demons kept bottled up by Saddam’s dictatorship, and allowing new ones — like al-Qaida — to slip in.
Yet at the same time, U.S. troop reinforcements helped rein them in by 2008. Many feel the powerful American presence prevents Iraqi politicians from dragging the country into the worst of sectarian reprisals and hatreds. Few believe Iraqi forces are up to keeping security or can avoid falling into the same sectarian splits.
Politically delicate talks
Nearly 40,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, all of whom will withdraw by Dec. 31, a deadline set in a 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and the administration of then-President George W. Bush.
The Obama administration, concerned over continued violence and growing Iranian influence, for much of this year pushed to keep thousands of U.S. troops here in a significant-sized training mission. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials expressed support of the idea, and they negotiated for months.
It was politically delicate for both Obama and al-Maliki, who each faced widespread opposition from their respective publics to continue a war that was never popular in either nation.
But talks ran aground over Iraqi opposition to giving American troops legal immunity that would shield them from Iraqi prosecution. Legal protection for U.S. troops has always angered everyday Iraqis who saw it as simply a way for the Americans to run roughshod over the country. Many Iraqi lawmakers were hesitant to grant immunity for fear of a backlash from constituents.
“When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible,” al-Maliki said. “The discussions over the number of trainers and the place of training stopped. Now that the issue of immunity was decided and that no immunity to be given, the withdrawal has started.”