BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military formally ends combat operations in Iraq on Tuesday, limiting its troop levels to 50,000 7-1/2 years after the invasion as President Barack Obama seeks to fulfill a promise to U.S. voters to end the war.
But Iraq remains fragile and insecure.
Reconciliation between majority Shi’ites and once dominant Sunnis is far from complete after years of sectarian war, and Kurd-Arab tensions may contain the seed of a future conflict.
Its leaders have yet to form a new government almost six months after a March election and Iraq is hounded by persistent attacks by a weakened but stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency.
The following are analysts’ views on whether the United States is extricating itself too early, and on what the main challenges are that lie ahead for Iraq’s fledgling democracy:
“As it turned out, the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops was poorly timed, but renegotiating the timeline for the end of the combat mission was not politically feasible in either the U.S. or Iraq. Iraq is still without a government and a clear uptick in violence is being felt across the country. But the risk to a return to the violence that began to overwhelm Iraq in 2005 is relatively small.”
“It probably is not premature for the U.S. to end its combat mission in Iraq. Since 2008, the Iraqi government has resisted calling upon U.S. forces for assistance in most all instances of violence and tension because of a generalized concern that doing so would be viewed by a significant portion of the Iraqi populace as a compelling demonstration that the government was unable to deal with the security situation itself. There also are nationalist concerns within the Iraqi leadership related to a perception that to summon U.S. military assistance once again would smack of a return to ‘occupation.’”
“It is difficult to see how a few more months of combat operations would materially improve permanent stability in Iraq. The U.S. will continue to provide support where possible, but a sustainable, stable outcome in Iraq over the long term must derive from Iraq’s own solutions to the challenges it faces.
“A major challenge for Iraq is the development of its human resources in both the private and public sectors. Decades of war and sanctions have quarantined Iraq from new technologies and industrial development. Another challenge is infrastructure. Iraq has outlined ambitious goals for development in energy, power, and other sectors. In order to realize these goals, it will need to make massive investments in ports, pipelines, roads, and rail, all in a fairly short period of time.”
“The withdrawal is premature in so far as the current circumstances are well below optimal conditions because of the government formation troubles. However, U.S. combat troops have in many ways done what they can for Iraq. The troubles that persist are political in nature and may not be solved in the short — or even medium term — and they will need to be solved by Iraq’s constituent sectarian and ethno-national groups.
“In relation to the combat troop withdrawal the greatest risk will be seen in the disputed territories — particularly in Nineveh and Kirkuk — where U.S. efforts to ease tensions between Kurds and Arabs have prevented the eruption of serious violence. Iran has to a great degree already found its role in Iraq. The U.S. combat withdrawal will allow Iran to entrench that position but it is worth noting that the Iranians have clearly not seen U.S. presence as an obstacle to their influence in Iraq, particularly not in the past couple of years.”
“There certainly are dangers that remain, but these will persist in one form or another for a long time. Also, the U.S. has other forms of national power besides the military that will have some influence, and the military will remain in a relatively large scale for some time. Finally, U.S. presence in Iraq comes with real financial and opportunity costs, that must also be taken into consideration.
“I think the major challenge in the future — after Iraq has a government in place — are long-term. The importance of those factors that will shape Iraqi society and how they choose to live together (if they do) cannot be underestimated, yet are critical aspects of a good outcome there upon which we have spent very little resources or attention.”
JUAN COLE, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EAST HISTORY AND PROMINENT BLOGGER, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
“Consider the advantages of a U.S. withdrawal for Iraqis. The Shi’ites and Kurds have behaved very high-handedly with the Sunnis because they knew the Americans would kill the latter if they gave them any trouble. Likewise, Kurdish expansionism has been encouraged by their American alliance. Without the U.S., Iraqi political factions may be more willing to make hard compromises, because they will be more afraid of the backlash if they do not.”
MARINA OTTAWAY, DIRECTOR MIDDLE EAST PROGRAM, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE
“It is not premature for the U.S. to end its combat mission. The U.S. cannot force reconciliation on the Iraqis and it is the lack of internal consensus that threatens stability in Iraq. If Iraq was threatened from the outside, the U.S. should stay. But the U.S. has no business becoming part of a domestic conflict, which would happen if it stayed on. Also, we should not forget that the U.S. simply cannot continue its combat mission in Iraq and in Afghanistan simultaneously, at least not without mobilizing for war in a way most Americans would not accept. “The problem that underlies all the familiar tensions, is the lack of any common vision for the country. The constitution was hastily put together and furthermore never respected by any of the actors including the U.S., so it offers no guidelines. Politicians have no vision for the country, only for their role in it, thus they are unwilling to compromise. The result is that the country will continue drifting or sink into conflict again.”
WATHIQ AL-HASHEMI, INDEPENDENT BAGHDAD POLITICAL ANALYST
“Iraq has become a theater for settling foreign intelligence accounts. Iran has said many times ... that it will fill the vacuum after the U.S. withdraws. The country has become the target of regional ambitions and interference in its affairs, and this is a result of a weak government, weak politicians, and a weak parliament that is not taking important decisions.
“The U.S. was not keen to arm the Iraqi army with heavy weapons, and Iraq therefore faces big challenges by not having an air force, a navy. The armaments, proficiency, experience and performance of Iraqi forces do not meet current needs.”
PAUL ROGERS, PROFESSOR OF PEACE STUDIES, BRADFORD UNIVERSITY
“A substantial proportion of the 50,000 remaining troops are organized in fully combat-capable ‘advise and assist’ brigades and there remain significant numbers of U.S. Special Forces with unpublished rules of engagement. Even so there is a risk of a lapse into further violence aimed primarily at Iraqi police and army units, government offices and Shi’ite communities. A full civil war is unlikely but persistent violence is probable.
“With 7-1/2 years of war, four million internally and externally displaced people, over 100,000 dead and 200,000 plus injured, the core problem is post-conflict reconciliation and rebuilding of community relations. This will take at least a generation.”
EDWIN GUTIERREZ, PORTFOLIO MANAGER, ABERDEEN ASSET MANAGERS
“It’s definitely premature as the withdrawal seems to be predicated by an Obama campaign promise rather than existing conditions on the ground. The lack of government is the biggest risk. And any delays on getting expanded oil production up and running as this is the big positive that offsets all the negatives.”
SAAD AL-HADITHI, ANALYST, BAGHDAD UNIVERSITY
“The drawdown of the U.S. forces is in accordance with the security pact but it’s premature in that it is detrimental to the future of Iraq. The Iraqi military is not yet ready to take over, and there is no national agenda bringing together all Iraqi political opponents.
“The security challenge is the major one facing the country. Also, interference by regional powers is significant. The lower the presence of U.S. troops, the higher regional interference will be in Iraq.”
Reporting by Michael Christie and Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Angus MacSwan