Friday, August 27, 2010

The reckoning (Iraq's uncertain future)

August 26, 2010

The last American combat soldiers in Iraq shuffle through a half-empty base as they prepare for the one-way journey to the Kuwaiti border. Some recall their exploits during many tours of duty over the past seven years, charting their fortunes with language that has become common currency on television back home. The shock and awe of the invasion was eclipsed by insurgents using IEDs. Backed by contractors who erected blast walls around a green zone, the soldiers eventually inspired an awakening among Iraqi tribes that, aided by a surge of extra troops, in time brought something like order. In the soldiers’ telling, the names of places that were little known before the war have acquired the resonance of history: Najaf, Sadr City, Abu Ghraib.

Some 50,000 American troops will stay on in a support role, to “advise and assist” the Iraqi forces that are now supposed to be in charge of the country’s security. Nonetheless, August 31st marks the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the combat mission that began with the invasion in March 2003. As a sign of America’s changing role in the country, the State Department will now assume some of the responsibilities that were previously undertaken by the Pentagon. Chief among them is the training of Iraqi policemen, a key to keeping the peace. Consular offices will be opened across the country to replace military bases. Since the State Department does not have its own forces, it is hiring private gunmen. They will fly armed helicopters and drive armoured personnel carriers on the orders of the secretary of state long after the last American soldier has gone home.

For their part, the people of Iraq never learned to trust, let alone like, the Americans. Yet public opinion has shifted remarkably in recent weeks. After countless American warnings of their imminent departure, all met with stubborn Iraqi insistence that the “occupiers” would never leave, the penny has suddenly dropped. They really are on their way out. But instead of feeling joy, Iraqis have begun to worry. “We’re not ready to go it alone,” says Wesam, a junior army officer. He, like many others, fears a return of sectarian war. That points to the fragility of much of what the American army can claim to have achieved since 2003.

On the positive side, they conclusively ended the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein. Only his deputy, Izzat al-Douri, escaped capture and punishment in a war-crimes trial. American soldiers were flexible enough to change tactics in order to defeat an insurgency that threatened to overwhelm them; their emphasis on recruiting local allies proved superior to the unadulterated fire power they had used at first. They avoided all-out civil war and cut short the brutal reign of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born jihadist, who was hunted down and killed.

Furthermore, a more open society has taken shape in urban Iraq. Safia Souhail, a member of parliament, holds regular salons where discourse is free and often contrarian. On the streets too, politics is discussed openly, even among strangers. Iraqis are no longer afraid to say what they think. Where once there were only whispers, a cacophony of shouted curses now assaults political leaders. The press is nominally free, though highly partisan and often harassed by officials. Religious freedom is generally accepted, even if some minorities still complain of discrimination. Alcohol cannot be sold at certain times, in deference to Islamic hardliners, but is available nevertheless.