As U.S. scales back role in Iraq, attacks and political deadlock persist

Soldiers returning from Iraq were given a heroes welcome in Washington state by family members and loved ones who say they're simply happy to have their sons and daughters back.
By Leila Fadel
Sunday, August 22, 2010

BAGHDAD -- As the last U.S. combat brigade pulled out of Iraq amid fanfare last week, Iraqis remained embroiled in a battle for stability.

"The Americans are leaving, and they didn't solve the problems," said Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni legislator from the secular Iraqiya bloc. "So far they've failed and left Iraq to other countries."

About 52,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from more than 165,000 at the height of the surge. By Sept. 1, that number will have dropped to 50,000, serving mainly in a mentoring role. But the drawdown, which took place gradually over the past year, comes at a precarious time for the country. More than five months after inconclusive elections on March 7, a political deadlock has stalled formation of a new government. Assassinations are on the rise, attacks are still taking place daily, and public anger is boiling over in the summer heat.

"In Washington, I told them, 'It would be embarrassing if you left and there's no government in place,' " said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "The U.S. will still have a substantial force here, but it needs to use it to produce results. . . . The Iraqi leaders are at an impasse, and we need help from our American friends."

Now, every question begins with "what if?" What if the political vacuum unravels hard-earned security gains? What if, as U.S. influence wanes, neighboring countries fill the space left behind? What if a new government in this fledgling democracy never forms?

"It's a terrible time," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. "We always argued that the coincidence of a political and security vacuum would present a dangerous situation, and that's where we are now. If violence continues and insurgents get a foot in the door, what are the Americans going to do, with the limited resources they have?"

Sept. 1 marks the start of a change of mission, in which the remaining six U.S. combat troop brigades have been repurposed as "advise and assist" brigades. Along with about 4,500 Special Operations forces, they will mainly focus on training Iraqi security forces. The timing was supposed to coincide with Iraq's original January election date. But the elections were delayed until March, and as the drawdown deadline looms, politicians are still haggling over top jobs in the new government.

Meanwhile, the U.S. mission and military command are proceeding with their transition. The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, will give up his post in two weeks. Last week, a new U.S. ambassador arrived and immediately got to work, stepping off the plane in Baghdad and presenting his credentials to Zebari and President Jalal Talabani. James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Turkey and former deputy chief of mission and charge d'affaires in Baghdad, was welcomed as an improvement over his predecessor, Christopher R. Hill, a 33-year career diplomat who was criticized by some Iraqi politicians for his lack of experience in the region.

"I told him, 'We have been plotting to get you down to business right away. The country is wonderful, your troops are leaving, but there is a small little problem: government formation,' " Zebari recalled joking with Jeffrey.

Many Iraqis are questioning why they went to the polls, as services grow worse, violence continues and politicians negotiate at a snail's pace.

On Friday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front organization, asserted responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed more than 50 Iraqi army applicants earlier in the week, according to the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors insurgent Web sites.

"The situation is intolerable and unacceptable," Zebari said. "It's frustrating for the voters and the public. . . . That willingness to compromise is in short supply here, as patience is in short supply in Washington."

In central Baghdad, Ihab Abdul Rahman, a 29-year-old computer engineer, said he doesn't want the Americans to stay forever. But right now, as U.S. troops dwindle, the future is frighteningly unclear.

"It's bad," he said. "I'm worried, not just for myself, but for my country and my people."

Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.

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