Barack Obama

Interview: Iraq warns others away as U.S. ends combat

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi government has warned neighboring countries thinking they can fill the vacuum once U.S. troops withdraw not to interfere in its affairs, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said Tuesday.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) in Baghdad August 31, 2010. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Shi’ite Iran has gained considerable influence in Iraq since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and Iraqi officials also complain of meddling by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria.

All have tried to play a role in directing Iraqi politics six months after an election that produced no clear winner and as yet no new government, and are now positioning themselves for when U.S. forces fully withdraw in 2011, Zebari said.

“Of course many of them are under the illusion that there will be a security vacuum the moment the U.S. forces leave Iraq and they can step in to fill the vacuum,” he told Reuters as U.S. forces formally ended combat operations in Iraq.

“We have warned all of them there wouldn’t be any vacuum, and if there would be a vacuum, the only people who will fill that vacuum are the Iraqis themselves.”

The end of combat operations in Iraq and an accompanying fall in U.S. troop numbers to under 50,000 is a milestone as President Barack Obama seeks to fulfill a promise to start ending the unpopular and costly 7-1/2-year-long war.

More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, launched the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam.

The 50,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq will switch their focus to training and advising Iraqi forces as they fight a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi’ite militia, some of which the U.S. military says are armed and funded by Iran.

Under a bilateral security pact, the last U.S. soldier must withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.

“I think it is a turning point in the American military engagement in Iraq,” Zebari said of the August 31 end to U.S. combat operations.

“For the current administration of Obama, it is an important day because he has fulfilled his pledge to the American public that he will conduct a responsible withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and he has done that.”

U.S. officials say Washington is not disengaging. Rather, the U.S. relationship with Iraq is transforming from a military one into a diplomatic and economic one.

Many Iraqis view the declining U.S. presence with alarm. Attacks by insurgents have continued ahead of the U.S. drawdown and amid the continuing political deadlock after the election.

Zebari said attempts by other countries to pursue their own agendas in Iraq made it all the more important that Iraqi leaders rise up to their responsibilities and “take the destiny of the country in their hands” by forming a government.

“It has not reached a crisis point yet but it is very close,” he said.

Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Jon Hemming