U.S. message leaves Iraqis confused

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 3, 2010; A13

BAGHDAD - As President Obama declared Tuesday that it was "time to turn the page" in Iraq, Mahmoud Othman - tuning in to the Oval Office address here at 3 a.m. - listened in shock.

For Americans, the message was clear: The United States' war in Iraq is over. But the longtime Kurdish politician heard something different: Despite U.S. insistence that Americans remain committed to Iraq, they are halfway out the door.

"They decided to finish it, but they know it's not over," Othman said Thursday. "War with terrorism is here, and Iranian intervention is here. They are lying to tell their people that they left behind a government that is capable and Iraqi security forces that are capable. . . . There is no government, the people don't have confidence in the Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi suffering is increasing."

Many people here say that they did not expect Obama's declaration to sound so final or that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would acknowledge that the war is over, albeit "clouded" by its start in a U.S.-led invasion based on a false premise.

"I'm disappointed by this new administration," Othman said. "They want to run away from Iraq."

He also criticized Vice President Biden's trip to Baghdad this week to mark the end of the U.S. combat mission, questioning why Biden did not hold a news conference while he was here. "This is America - it's supposed to be transparent," he said.

Yet even as the administration declares that the more than seven-year-long war has ended,U.S. diplomats and military commanders in Iraq have been spreading a somewhat different message: They are still here, although in smaller numbers, for at least 16 more months.

They had spent the year before the drawdown assuring Iraqis that they were not picking up and leaving Iraq in the dust. They said that they knew there were challenges ahead and that they would be here to help deal with them - Kurdish and Arab disputes over land that could trigger battles, constitutional amendments so sensitive they were never dealt with, an oil revenue-sharing law that was never passed, and a lower but still significant level of violence.

In his farewell speech at Wednesday's change-of-command ceremony, Gen. Ray Odierno asked Iraqis for "strategic patience." In previous statements, he had hinted at the possibility of a long-term U.S. military relationship with Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011, the deadline for U.S. withdrawal stipulated in a bilateral security agreement.

The newly arrived U.S. ambassador, James F. Jeffrey, struck a similar note of reassurance in his first briefing to reporters in Baghdad last month.

"The point we're trying to make . . . is that we're not abandoning Iraq, and we're not really even leaving Iraq," he said. "Violence, uncertainty and risks to our strategy are not over."

The perception of a mixed U.S. message has fed the uncertainty many Iraqis say they feel. They are unsure what they want, they say, unsure whether the United States is staying or going, unsure whether their future will be any better than their past.

"It changed for them," said Najah Abdul Rahman, a bookseller on Baghdad's storied Mutanabi Street, referring to the Americans. "It's finished because of their unexpected losses in lives and in money."

On the railing of a staircase in his bookstore hang the pictures of Rahman's own losses, a brother and nephew killed in a 2007 bombing on this street, named for a famous Iraqi poet and known as the street of books.

"They entered for nothing. They removed the regime but created conflict from the many different parties they brought, and now they take their troops out," he said. "We don't know what we want. We are afraid that if they withdraw, the sectarian killing will return, but at the same time we know the killings started while the Americans were here. We're confused."

Iraqi newspapers published commentaries Thursday questioning the Americans' departure. In one, a writer using the pen name Abdullah al-Sikooti (Abdullah the Silenced) asked why they didn't take the "cancer" they had brought with them as they left. Why don't they return the "beautiful nights and minds" before they leave? he asked.

A political cartoon in another Arabic newspaper depicted Uncle Sam flanked by two men, "the situation in Afghanistan" and "the situation in Iraq." Iraq had no arms, Afghanistan had no legs, and Uncle Sam had his arms around the pair as he flashed the victory sign.

Back on Mutanabi Street, Rahman sat in his bookstore on a plastic chair.

"We don't know what happened, what is happening or what will happen," he said. "But Iraq is a country that never forgets."

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