By Ulrike Putz in Baghdad
The Al Faw Palace in Baghdad is a relic from the reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. This Wednesday, it will be the scene of a significant moment in the history of American involvement in the country, when US General Raymond Odierno hands over the command of US forces in Iraq to his successor. The ceremony will mark the penultimate step of the US withdrawal from Iraq.
Only 50,000 US troops will remain in the country, out of a total of over 170,000 soldiers that were in Iraq at the high point of the American deployment. They are staying mainly to support the Iraqi security forces as advisers and trainers, and are also due to return to their homeland at the end of 2011.
The withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq's urban centers just over a year ago was welcomed euphorically. Fireworks lit up the sky, honking motorcades drove through the streets and men danced with joy. They were celebrating the fact that the occupiers were finally out of sight, but still close enough to intervene should terror once again regain the upper hand.
No one expects much dancing in the streets of Baghdad this Wednesday. The streets are deserted these days. It is not only the infernal heat of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) which keeps people in their homes. It is also the fear of what will happen once the Americans are gone.
Visitors to Baghdad can sense the fear that many people have of a new civil war. That fear is underscored by the daily news reports on television. Last week, at least 56 Iraqis died at the hands of suicide bombers and snipers in around two dozen terrorist attacks. In August, an average of five policemen or soldiers died every day.
'Not in Iraq's Interests'
Given the violence that is flaring up again, many Iraqis want their occupiers to stay longer. "They shouldn't leave. The situation is not stable," says Mohammed Ali Mohammed, a 55-year-old shopkeeper in the New Baghdad district who sells vegetables and canned goods. Iraq has no government, the politicians are incompetent and the situation on the streets is "brutal," he says. "The Americans are leaving, but they didn't ask us."
Zeinab Ali, a 19-year-old student, agrees with him: "We had hoped that the US would help the Iraqis to end the political chaos. Instead, they surprised us with the decision to withdraw their troops," says Ali, who is currently in the first semester of a course in Islamic Studies.
His assessment of the situation is not, however, completely correct. It has been clear ever since Washington and Baghdad signed an agreement in late 2008 that the US would withdraw its troops by the end of 2011. Many Iraqis could not, and did not want to, believe that the US government would abide by its agreements, however. It has been decades since Iraq has had a government that keeps its word.
The uncertainty about what will happen now is so far-reaching that it has even affected the former arch-enemies of the US Army. Abu Mujahid lost a leg in 2004 when he fought against the invaders in the battle of Fallujah. Shrapnel fragments are lodged in his head, the legacy of a US missile strike. "Yes, we fought them to the death," Mujahid, who is a Sunni Muslim, told the news agency Reuters. "We dreamed of the day when they would leave Iraq. But their withdrawal at this time is not in Iraq's interests."
On the political level, too, doubts are growing as to whether Iraq can survive on its own. "Withdrawing at this moment is extremely dangerous," says Shaher Ketab, a political consultant who is close to the secular al-Iraqiya coalition. He has just come from the latest in a series of meetings with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. They were discussing the formation of the new Iraqi government -- a process that is no further forward today, five-and-a-half months after the election.
It is this political vacuum that is making the Iraqis fearful. The experiences of recent years have shown that chaos reigns wherever there is no strong state in charge. "The US is leaving behind a huge security hole," complains Ketab. He rejects the suggestion that the hole has in fact been created by his own clients, the politicians who do not want to agree on a compromise for a coalition government.
Mahmoud Othman, a member of parliament within the Kurdish bloc, is hard on his fellow politicians. In the tough negotiations, Othman occupies a position between the Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the nationalist-secular Iraqiya coalition of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The major parties "are responsible for the fact that Iraq is paralyzed," rants Othman, speaking in his heavily guarded villa near the Tigris River. "They have betrayed their voters."
Othman believes the reason for the deadlock in negotiations is the feeling of suspicion that became burned into Iraqis during the dictatorship. "No politician wants to go into opposition," he says. In the Arab world, a government's political opponents traditionally ended up in prison, he explains. "It's impossible to get rid of people's fears."
But Othman, too, sees the US as at least partly responsible for the current situation. The US had promised "a responsible reduction in troop levels," he says. "But is it responsible to now simply run away? No!" he says. "Obama is acting according to the motto: I will leave Iraq to the Iraqis, and the Iraqis to themselves."
The Kurdish politician argues that the US should have provided better training for local security forces. "After all, it was the Americans that got us into this mess." There was no al-Qaida in Iraq when Saddam was in power, he points out. "The Americans now have to teach the Iraqis how to deal with the problems that they are leaving behind."
'You Can't Please the Iraqis'
The US forces, for their part, are observing the sudden regret over their departure with interest. "We are seeing that very clearly," says Brigadier General Mark Corson, speaking in the US military base in Balad about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Most of the troop withdrawal in recent months has taken place via the Balad base. Corson compares the logistics of the operation to moving an entire American city with a population of 80,000.
The decision to leave the country has not been called into question for one moment, despite the Iraqis' new-found affection for their occupiers, Corson says. "You can't please the Iraqis. If you're here, you are the evil occupier. If you leave, you are letting them down. Then it's better to just leave at some point."
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