Divisions Over Security Implications of US Pullout

Cynicism towards government clouds views of future, despite widespread relief at American withdrawal.

Divisions Over Security Implications of US Pullout

Cynicism towards government clouds views of future, despite widespread relief at American withdrawal.

Iraqis disagree sharply over the security implications of the United States military’s recent withdrawal from their cities, according to an IWPR straw poll. Though most respondents saw the pullout as necessary, even overdue, there was little agreement on what had caused it or where it would lead.

Baghdad and Washington’s official account of the move was disputed in some form by roughly half the people interviewed. Some questioned the American forces’ intention to leave; others wondered whether their local counterparts would be able to replace them.

Commenting on the survey, analysts said unfulfilled reconstruction promises had fuelled disillusionment with politics to the point where Iraqis instinctively questioned even genuine gains in security.

“The people believe their leaders have failed to deliver essential services,” said Dr Karim Zhaghaidal of the Al-Sabah Centre for Strategic Studies in Baghdad.

“Though security has improved, the government alone cannot claim credit for this. The US and Britain also played a part.”

US troops left Iraq’s cities on June 30 under the terms of an agreement brokered last year between Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and former US president George W Bush.

Maliki declared a national holiday to mark the withdrawal, calling it a “great victory” on Iraq’s road to regaining sovereignty. His party faces voters in nationwide parliamentary elections in six months’ time.

The Americans, now largely confined to bases outside town, are still permitted to train Iraqi forces and, on occasion, fight alongside them. The deal envisages most US combat troops leaving the country in mid-2010, with a complete withdrawal scheduled for the end of 2011.

IWPR reporters in eight cities across Iraq asked a total of 35 people about the withdrawal’s probable causes and its likely effect.

Abu Ahmed, a retired former army officer in the tense northern city of Mosul, said US troops had left the streets in order “to cut their losses”. But he added, “They will create chaos to overwhelm the Iraqi forces and make ordinary people wish for their return.”

Mahmud Kadim, a student in the southern Shia city of Amara, dismissed the “farcical” gesture. “If they really want to withdraw, why don’t they leave our borders?” he said.

In Baghdad, Nihad Falah, a designer, said security would worsen after the withdrawal partly because Iraqi forces were not “professional”.

“The Americans will destabilise Iraq if it does not yield to its will,” he added. “They say they will withdraw in 2011. Let us ask then whether or not security will improve.”

The June 30 withdrawal had little direct impact on semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The region’s security has long been under the control of local forces, known as peshmerga, who cooperated with the Americans in the 2003 invasion.

Some in the region feared the US withdrawal could destabilise other parts of Iraq, and ultimately, Kurdistan itself. “The extremists’ morale will be boosted, while the security forces will suffer a psychological blow,” said Hemin Lihoni, a university student in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.

In the rest of Iraq, just over a third of the respondents said they felt violence would decline and another third were uncertain. Only a handful of people – mostly in Baghdad and the Shia south – felt the government deserved any credit.

Ahmed Sadoon, a student in Amara, said the Americans were leaving Iraq because they dared not challenge Maliki’s government after its strong showing in provincial polls this year. “They know staying on will provoke a crisis,” he said.

In Baghdad, Karam Omar, an economics graduate, agreed security would improve but at the expense of the Shia prime minister’s rivals. “Iraq is heading for dictatorship. With the Americans gone, the Shia will consolidate their grip on the security apparatus,” he said.

Mohammad Ali, a restaurant worker from Karbala, said Iraqi forces would be more effective than Americans because they had already served as frontline troops in joint operations and were more familiar with the territory.

In areas dominated by Sunni Arabs, such as Mosul and Ramadi in Anbar province, people felt security would improve not because the Iraqi forces were stronger – but because the insurgents would have fewer targets.

“The resistance said it was fighting the occupation,” said Abdul Rida Hamid, an agricultural engineer in Mosul. “I think conditions will improve because now there is no such thing.”

Most analysts agreed that the insurgents would find it harder to justify their attacks with fewer US troops on the streets.

“The resistance always claimed it was fighting the occupation, while in reality, its tactics ended up hurting civilians. Now that will become more apparent,” Joma al-Hilfi, a political analyst, said.

Analysts also largely backed the official view, put forward by US commanders, that the withdrawal took place because the insurgency had been weakened.

However, a significant number of Iraqis argued the opposite: they said insurgent attacks on American troops and assets had led to the withdrawal.

Suad, a government worker in Amara, said US troops had faced “huge losses, in lives and money”. She said they “just needed an excuse to save face and pull out”.

Several Iraqis who emphasised the role of the insurgents were also pessimistic about the future – an indication perhaps that they were cynical about the government rather than sympathetic towards the insurgency.

Jamal, a policeman from Ramadi in Anbar province, said American forces had pulled out because of “the fierce resistance they face on a daily basis”.

While he regarded the US withdrawal as necessary, he attacked the Iraqi force replacing them as corrupt.

“Competent police officers were dismissed from service and replaced by officers affiliated to political parties,” he said.

“You can fight terrorists. But you cannot fight the influence of the parties.”

Analysts said the government could not afford to be complacent about having reduced the violence, while complaints mounted about corruption and the pace of reconstruction.

“People want services as well as security,” said writer and activist Hadi Jalo Mara’ai. “Some of them are still living like rats in huts on the outskirts of Iraq’s cities.”

IWPR-trained reporters in Baghdad, Karbala, Amara, Kirkuk, Ramadi, Mosul, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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