Historic Handover in Iraq Joy and Apprehension as US Troops Withdraw from Cities

The withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities marks a historic turning point, with the Iraqis seeing themselves once again as being in control of their own country. But the exaggerated self-confidence of their leaders could come at a high cost to Iraqi citizens. The oil-rich nation, though full of potential, remains extremely vulnerable.

By in Baghdad

If there is one man in Iraq whose face betrays the full spectrum of triumphs, failures and tragic events of the last six years, then it is the deeply exhausted and sometimes excessively cheerful neurologist Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

Al-Rubaie, like most of those who currently rule Iraq, returned to the country in 2003 in the wake of US tanks and troops, after spending decades in exile. He was appointed Baghdad's national security adviser in 2004, came face-to-face with his mortal enemy Saddam Hussein in a prison and, on a cold winter's night three years later, led the former dictator up a flight of steps to the gallows. "I held his arm this tightly," he says, clenching his fists. "This tightly." What a victory -- and what satisfaction.

He watched as his country plunged into terror, and he tried to put a positive spin on the situation, even in 2006 and 2007, when up to 3,000 people died in murders and bombings some months. He traveled to Washington, first to ask the Americans to be patient and, later, when things slowly began to improve, to negotiate with them over their withdrawal. He went to the Iraqi city of Najaf and the Iranian capital Tehran to obtain the blessings of the mullahs.

But none of this was enough. In early June, after months of friction, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki informed al-Rubaie that his services would no longer be required. Al-Rubaie is still living in a villa next to that of the prime minister in Baghdad's Green Zone, but the parliament is already digging through his papers and scrutinizing his expense accounts. Al-Rubaie is clearly out of favor, and his career as national security adviser is over.

But instead of giving up, al-Rubaie has founded his own party, known as al-Wasat or the Center Party. Two weeks ago, its members convened in Baghdad's legendary Palestine Hotel for their founding congress. Rubaie has no time to feel humiliated or depressed. He has big plans for Iraq -- and he wants to become prime minister himself.

'A Great Victory'

This Tuesday, US troops will withdraw from Iraq's cities and towns to their military bases. The Americans, loud and overbearing after their speedy victory six years ago, are quiet and thoughtful today. The Iraqis, even in the face of their deep trauma, are as self-confident as al-Rubaie, despite his removal from office. Al-Maliki describes the American withdrawal as a "great victory" for Iraq over the occupiers, comparable to the withdrawal of British forces in the 1920s. He declared Tuesday a national holiday and, referring to the Americans, told the French newspaper Le Monde: "We will not ask them to intervene in combat operations related to maintaining public order. It is finished."

Whether this is true remains to be seen. More than 200 people were killed in attacks in June, from Kirkuk in the north to Bathaa in the south. It is quite possible that Maliki will soon be forced to ask the Americans for military assistance once again. As much as Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds normally disagree, they all expect the security situation to deteriorate significantly between early July and elections in January.

Nevertheless, there is an inherent magic to this moment, a feeling of confidence that has not been seen in Iraq in an entire generation. The stigma of being occupied is about to be lifted, as is the Iraqis' deep bitterness over the fact that they needed outside help to liberate them from a dictatorship.

These feelings are now being replaced by other sensations. The terror of the past few years has obscured the fact that the country has the potential to become a dominant power in the region once again. It has oil reserves second in size only to those of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it has more water than Egypt. And despite a massive exodus of doctors, engineers and university graduates, Iraq still has a relatively well-educated population.

"Iraq," says al-Rubaie, "has a great future." He picks up a piece of paper, draws a compass and places Iraq in the middle. "In the west," he says, "we have America and Israel. In the east we have Iran. The Turks and the Europeans are in the north, and the wealthy Gulf Arabs in the south." Iraq will be lost if it becomes embroiled in the West's conflict with Iran, he says. Instead, Iraq must align itself on the north-south axis, says Rubaie, because that is where its future lies.

Persians, Turks and Arabs

Businessman Ahmed Chalabi, another fallen politician with big plans, has his official residence in the former Brazilian Embassy in Baghdad. In 2003, he was the Pentagon's candidate of choice to be leader of the new Iraq, but his popularity in Washington plummeted with that of former US President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The Iraqis, too, voted him out of office, but Chalabi is still involved in politics behind the scenes. He hopes to reestablish the United Iraqi Alliance, which brought the Shiites to power and secured them the office of prime minister in 2005. It's a plan which has the potential to succeed.

The elements of Chalabi's foreign policy concept look a little like the contents of his villa in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district: marble, historic portraits, tasteful furniture and paintings, Persian rugs. A descendant of high-ranking officials during the Ottoman period, Chalabi wants to forge together Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria as the successors to the four traditional realms of the Middle East -- Baghdad's Abbasid dynasty, the Persian Sassanid empire, Istanbul's Ottomans and Damascus's Umayyad dynasty -- into a new alliance. The inclusion of Iran in the proposed union is one reason for his falling out of favor with the Americans.

Ignoring small-minded objections, Chalabi envisions a sort of new Baghdad Pact like the Cold War-era treaty adopted by Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Britain in 1955. For instance, he believes that the question of who will win the ongoing battle for power in Iran is still completely open. Iraqis and Persians, says Chalabi, have been neighbors for thousands of years, and history is far more significant than the minor conflicts of the present. In other words, the Saddams, the shahs and the mullahs come and go, while the people remain.


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