Report: US withdrawal in Iraq — What they leave behind

Photo: US Army

On 28 July 2009, UK troops in Iraq were relocated to Kuwait because of a mandate that would expire on 31 July 2009.

The extension of the mandate, which would allow UK forces to return, has yet to be agreed upon by the Iraqi government. A few British personnel stayed behind to train the new Iraqi navy, but the foreign military presence in Iraq now is largely that of the US, who have also begun to leave. US Urban Pullout On June 30 2009, US forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq’s towns and cities, with plans for a full departure from the struggling nation by 2011. Under the withdrawal deal, US combat forces have pulled out of cities, but some troops remain to give support to Iraqi forces and soldiers with tasks in urban areas such as assisting with reconstruction work. Iraq has marked 30 June, the day of the urban pullout, a public holiday called National Sovereignty Day.

Long term plans

The plan for withdrawal, announced as a campaign promise by US President Barack Obama, is to see the end of US involvement in Iraq after about ten years. The urban pullout came two years after there was an escalation in the level of US troops in Iraq between the months of February and June in 2007, when US troop levels in Iraq had reached about 170,000.


Obama’s proposal is to end all US-led combat operations by September 2010, and have all US troops out of Iraq by December 2011. There currently remain about 130,000 US troops in the country, and this number is not expected to see a drastic decrease until after the Iraqi national elections in January 2010.

The violence that follows

Plans for withdrawal do not automatically mean that problems in Iraq will come to an end. Obama admitted in a speech in February 2009, that the country they leave behind will not be perfect, and that “there will be difficult days ahead”. The dawning of these “difficult days” was especially evident in light of events that surrounded the June withdrawal.

Despite being a time filled with public celebrations by the Iraqis, the period encircling the US urban withdrawal was also a month filled with violence. On the same day as the urban pullout, a car bomb in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk killed at least 33 people, and wounded about 90. This bombing occurred shortly after four American soldiers were killed in combat in Baghdad. Ten days prior to the car bombing, there was a truck bombing in Kirkuk that resulted in the deaths of about 82 people. Moreover, in May 2009 Kirkuk was the site of two suicide bombings that claimed about 14 lives.


Iraqi improvement

In a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on 28 July 2009, Iraq was said to have been making steady progress since the first US withdrawal. “Nobody’s the boss or the occupier, or however you want to put it. But there’s a real sense of empowerment by the Iraqis,” Gates said when asked about US and Iraqi cooperation in the post withdrawal period.

Of the Iraq’s security situation, he said that it was “amazingly different” than what is was during his first visit to Iraq in December 2006, a time at which the war is considered to have been most violent.

Initial foresight

Gates’ perspective seems to be in contrast to what was expressed by Obama’s initial response to the first major pullout. Obama said: “There are those who will test Iraq’s security forces and the resolve of the Iraqi people through more sectarian bombings and the murder of innocent civilians.”

Obama has not been afraid to address the argument that the US is leaving Iraq without successfully eradicating insurgents in the nation as part of their war on terrorism. He has admitted that the Iraq they leave behind will not be perfect, but that the US has reached their “achievable goals” and that they must move on. “What we will not do,” he said, “is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals. We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq’s streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq’s union is perfected. We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars.”

Iraqi perspective

Iraqi citizens remain uncertain not only of what this first major pullout will mean for Iraq, but also whether the US withdrawal, in its entirety, will ever take place. In the New York Times, Samir Alwan, the owner of a mini-market in Basra, is quoted as saying: “They will not withdraw to their homes; they will stay here and there so that they can return in emergencies. So it is not sovereignty, according to my point of view, and I think that the Iraqi Army is only able to secure the south of the country and unable to secure Baghdad and Mosul.”

American think tank on American policy

The Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), a think tank part of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), also argues that the June pullout, despite Obama’s stance, may not necessarily lead to the planned 2011 withdrawal. Erik Leaver, the Policy Outreach director for FPIF, argued: “The United States claims it’s adhering to the agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), even with so many troops being left in the cities. But the United States is changing semantics instead of policy. For example, there are no plans to transfer the 3,000 American troops stationed within Baghdad at Forward Operating Base Falcon, because commanders have determined that despite its location, it’s not within the city.”

With regards to the presence of non-combative forces in Iraq, and the possibility that they may remain in the country after Obama’s proposed withdrawal date, Leaver said: “The original intent of moving troops out of the cities was to reduce the U.S. military role and send the message to Iraqis that the United States would be leaving the country soon. But troops that are no longer sleeping in the cities will still take part in operations within Iraqi cities; they will serve in “support” and “advisory” roles, rather than combat functions. Such ‘reclassification’ of troops as military trainers is another example of how the United States is circumventing the terms of the SOFA agreement.”

Iraq now in Iraqi hands

The US vice-president Joe Biden, who has been charged by Obama to oversee the troops’ withdrawal, generally corroborated Obama’s declarations. He also expressed that the primary responsibility for Iraqi stability now lies with Iraq itself. In a statement issued by his office on 2 July 2009, he said: “The vice president will reiterate the United States’ commitment to fully implement the Security Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement and to carry out President Obama’s plan to draw down U.S. forces. He will discuss with Iraq’s leaders the importance of achieving the political progress that is necessary to ensure the nation’s long-term stability.”

Issues over interpretations

In the latest developments on the plan for Iraqi stability, it seems that discussions between US and Iraqi leaders were not as successful as hoped. In late July 2009, Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby Jr, the No. 2 US general in Iraq, said in an interview: “Boy, we thought we’d sat down and talked through this [with Iraqi leaders], but it turned out to be harder.” Issues have arisen over varied interpretations of the details of the withdrawal pact, one of them being the unexpected Iraqi restraints being placed on US troop movements in the post-withdrawal period.

Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said the pact allowed the movement of supply convoys and advisory missions but suggested that Iraqis would not budge on their interpretation of the pact. “We haven’t given U.S. combat troops greater freedom of movement inside cities. This requires permission,” Khalaf had said.

A meeting on 9 July 2009 was to determine agreement between US and Iraqi forces on the conditions of the withdrawal. Jacoby said the meeting clarified how and when U.S. supply convoys can move and determined that some reconstruction teams can travel in cities during the day under certain restrictions.

2003 – Invasion of Iraq

The occupation of Iraq is an ongoing military conflict, which began in March 2003, when multinational forces, led by the US and UK, invaded Iraq in response to concerns regarding Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Both the US and the UK governments agreed that in the case that Iraq possessed such weapons, it would threaten their security as well as the security of their coalition allies.

After a United Nations inspection, there was no evidence of the presence of WMDs in Iraq. A US-led survey conducted after the investigation concluded that Iraq had ended its WMD programs in 1991, but intended to continue with them if Iraq sanctions were lifted; there were no WMD programs active at the time of invasion. In interviews released July 2009 by the FBI, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein said the reason for refusing earlier investigations regarding the subject was fear that Iran would feel superior to Iraq having acquired the knowledge that Iraq possessed no WMDs.

Additional claims against Iraq which served for support for the invasion were accusations that Hussein was harboring and supporting Al-Qaeda “a claim which was denied by Hussein and for which no evidence was found”, Iraqi government human rights abuses, the desire to spread democracy in the Middle East, and Iraq’s financial support for Palestine. Accusations of Iraq’s oil reserves being an influence on the decision to invade were also made, but were denied by many officials.

Consequences for Iraq

The invasion has left Iraq with an immeasurable amount of rebuilding to do. According to the Iraq household socio-economic survey (ihses), conducted in 2007 by the World Food Programme, an estimated 3.1% of Iraqi households, which could be upwards of 930,000 people, are “food insecure”. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), power cuts remain regular, and many homes receive electricity for less than half a day.

Many homes also have no running water and rely on wells or streams for their supplies. With regards to sanitation, in an investigation conducted by OCHA, an outbreak of cholera, which was due to the poor standard of sanitation in post-invasion Iraq, in August 2008 affected nine provinces in the country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) “outbreaks will recur in Iraq until access to safe water and proper sanitation is ensured for all people”. Cases of diarrhoea, which is a symptom of other waterborne diseases, was also reported to be increasing.

The UN says only 32% of the population has access to clean drinking water, and only 19% have access to a good sewerage system. The number of deaths, military and civilian, is continuing to decrease according to the Iraq Body Count (IBC). The IBC says that between 8,315 and 9,028 civilians were reported to have died in Iraq in 2008, which is a substantial decline from 2007, when between 25,774 and 27,599 people were reportedly killed in violence. The first six months of 2009 saw about 1,891 civilians deaths.

The future — Issues that remain

The relative decrease in violence is what many analysts regard as the enabling factor for Obama’s decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq. However, despite this decrease, Iraq’s security situation remains unstable. Although Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki is building an Iraqi military force, Iraq remains dependent on US military force for operational and logistical support.

With the Kurdish elections underway, many analysts also argue that such provincial elections indicate a path towards greater political stability in the country. However, several prominent issues will persist within the nation, such as the continuation of competing sectarian divisions within the various components of government, the status of oil-rich Kirkuk, disagreements over federalism among various ethnic and sectarian groups, and the development of Iraq’s oil law. Parliamentary elections set for late 2009 could have also have divergent effects by either moving Iraq forward or igniting tensions.

While violence has decreased and the government is stronger, fighting continues and the US presence is remains far too formidable in Iraq for it to be called a sovereign nation. Although Afghanistan is now garnering greater attention, Iraq cannot be left behind if it is to pull out of its struggle.

According to FPIF, Iraq’s long-term stability depends on the “integration and demobilization of the Sons of Iraq (SOI)”, the locally recruited and primarily Sunni security forces which are armed and supported by the United States at $300 per person each month. FPIF says that legislation should be put in place for both requiring a plan and funding for integration and demobilization of these forces.

Moreover, there needs to be a reform the Oil Law. The proposed Iraq hydrocarbon law would take the majority of Iraq’s oil out of the hands of the Iraqi government and open it to international oil companies, says FPIF.

A third important issue is that of Iraqi refugees. There are an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, Jordan, and other neighbors of Iraq, as well as 2.7 million internally displaced persons within Iraq, making it one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. Legislation regarding this issue should address funding for humanitarian assistance as well as resettlement for Iraqis in both internal and external areas.

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