Iraqi Endgame Uncertain

Six years and nearly four months ago, Washington’s neocon advocates of the war to oust Saddam Hussein predicted that a grateful Iraqi population would welcome victorious U.S. forces with flowers, music and dancing in the streets.

It never happened. There was none of the emotional dizziness and tears of happiness that accompanied the liberation of Paris in 1944 — the romantic prototype for such events, and doubtless what the neo-cons had in mind.

But those displays are taking place this week. There is music and dancing in the streets as Iraq launches a national celebration to mark its real liberation: the departure of the American forces, or at least their withdrawal to enclaves outside the main urban areas.

But is the euphoria premature? Under the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement signed in November 2008, the 130,000 American soldiers still in Iraq will no longer be involved in security operations — unless Iraqi forces ask for help in specific cases. Given the continued level of sectarian violence that has claimed 1,800 Iraqi lives since Jan. 1, both American and Iraqi military officers on the ground believe that such requests will not be long in coming.

Barack Obama’s endgame may not be as clear-cut as either he or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would like it. U.S. forces are scheduled to be reduced to between 35,000 and 50,000 by the end of 2011, and to small groups of military advisers after that. But with deadly terrorist incidents occurring almost daily, and Iranian interference likely to continue, the start of the U.S. pullout does not mean “mission accomplished,” Iraq’s interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, warned in today’s Washington Post. Rather, “it is the beginning of a highly uncertain chapter in Iraqi democracy and self-governance.”

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