By Ammar Al Shahbander
With the formal ending of the American military mission in their country, Iraqis are divided on what it means for the future.
Just as in the United States, politicians and ordinary people in Iraq have taken different, often conflicting stands on the implications of the troop exit, which was marked with a ceremony in Baghdad on December 15.
Some see it as a strategic defeat for the US which will increase the regional influence of Iran. Others argue that ending the American military presence will launch a healthier, more balanced strategic partnership between Baghdad and Washington.
Iraqis who oppose the troop withdrawal believe it will leave a political vacuum that will amplify instability. They point to the recent surge of requests by provincial councils for greater autonomy and demands for “federal status”for some regions as signs that Iraq is heading for political and administrative disintegration.
Furthermore, they argue, the removal of US forces will leave a grave military, security and intelligence void that will be impossible to fill in the near future. This could allow terrorist groups and neighbours like Iran, to exert increasing influence on Iraq.
The very fact that Iraq’s military is intended to function as a massive counter-insurgency force rather than a conventional army underlines the state’s lack of capacity to defend itself against foreign aggression or interference.
At a strategic level, opponents of the US withdrawal warn that Iraq stands to lose the world’s only superpower as its ally, at a time when it is isolated in the region and lacking in constructive, balanced relationships with any of its neighbours. That leaves Iraq very exposed, in an increasingly volatile and hostile neighbourhood.
Those who support the US pullout, on the other hand, say that since Iraq is no longer seen as a threat to its neighbours, it is not at risk of military intervention by its neighbours. And, they say, the Iraqi army may be short on equipment and training, but it will be able to defend the country.
At a political level, the optimists say, Iraqi politicians will be able to resolve their differences via dialogue, with no need for American mediation.
Some also look forward to a more evenly balanced relationship with the US, with the military presence replaced by strategic collaboration in areas such as political and social development, economic cooperation, investment, and educational and cultural exchanges.
There are also, of course, hard-line opponents of any US presence, such as firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers, who reject any form of cooperation as a covert extension of the US “occupation”.
At grassroots level, the US military withdrawal is being received with great scepticism. Iraqis are acutely aware of the complex regional politics and power-plays that surround them – and they are weary of them.
Upbeat comments from Iraqi and US politicians about the withdrawal have gained little traction in the country. People on the ground see inherent dangers, both in political developments at provincial level and in the continuing stalemate at national level. The withdrawal has served to point up fears that President Barack Obama and his administration have abandoned Iraq to a dark fate.
Ammar al-Shahbander is IWPR’s Chief of Mission in Iraq. This article was published at IWPR’s ICR Issue 382.