President Obama’s speech formally declaring that the last 43,000 U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year was designed to mask an unpleasant truth: The troops aren’t being withdrawn because the U.S. wants them out. They’re leaving because the Iraqi government refused to let them stay.
Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq but had instead spent the past few months trying to extend it. A 2008 security deal between Washington and Baghdad called for all American forces to leave Iraq by the end of the year, but the White House -- anxious about growing Iranian influence and Iraq’s continuing political and security challenges -- publicly and privately tried to sell the Iraqis on a troop extension. As recently as last week, the White House was trying to persuade the Iraqis to allow 2,000-3,000 troops to stay beyond the end of the year.
Those efforts had never really gone anywhere; one senior U.S. military official told National Journal last weekend that they were stuck at “first base” because of Iraqi reluctance to hold substantive talks.
That impasse makes Obama’s speech at the White House on Friday less a dramatic surprise than simple confirmation of what had long been expected by observers of the moribund talks between the administration and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which believes its own security forces are more than up to the task of protecting the country from terror attacks originating within its borders or foreign incursions from neighboring countries.
The White House said Obama was pleased with the coming troop withdrawal because it kept to his “core commitment” – frequently enunciated during the campaign – of pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. “We never wanted a residual force in Iraq,” a senior administration official insisted.
In Washington, many Republican lawmakers had spent recent weeks criticizing Obama for offering to keep a maximum of 3,000 troops in Iraq, far less than the 10,000-15,000 recommended by top American commanders in Iraq. That political point-scoring helped obscure that the choice wasn’t Obama’s to make. It was the Iraqis’, and recent interviews with officials in the country provided vivid evidence of just how unpopular the U.S. military presence there has become -- and just how badly the Iraqi political leadership wanted those troops to go home.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, for instance, is a hugely pro-American politician who believes Iraq's security forces will be incapable of protecting the country without sustained foreign assistance. But in a recent interview, he refused to endorse a U.S. troop extension and instead indicated that they should leave.
"We have serious security problems in this country and serious political problems," he said in an interview late last month at his heavily guarded compound in Baghdad. "Keeping Americans in Iraq longer isn't the answer to the problems of Iraq. It may be an answer to the problems of the U.S., but it's definitely not the solution to the problems of my country."
Shiite leaders -- including many from Maliki’s own Dawa Party -- were even more strongly opposed, with followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatening renewed violence if any American troops stayed past the end of the year. The Sadr threat was deeply alarming to Iraqis just beginning to rebuild their lives and their country after the bloody sectarian strife which ravaged Iraq for the past eight and a half years.
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The only major Iraqi political bloc that was willing to speak publicly about a troop extension was the Kurdish alliance which governs the country’s north and has long had a testy relationship with Maliki and the country’s Sunni and Shia populations. But even Kurdish support was far from monolithic: Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker considered one of the most pro-American members of parliament, said in a recent interview that he wanted the U.S. troops out.
"Personally, I no longer want them to stay," Othman said. "It's been eight years. I don't think having Americans stay in Iraq will improve the situation at all. Leaving would be better for them and for us. It's time for us to go our separate ways."
The opposition from across Iraq’s political spectrum meant that Maliki would have needed to mount a Herculean effort to persuade the fractious parliament to sign off on any troop extension deals. His closest advisers conceded that such a deal would have virtually no chance of passing.
“Passing a new agreement now in the parliament would be very difficult, if not impossible,” Sadiq al-Ribaki, who heads Maliki’s political bloc in parliament and has long been one of his closest political advisers, said in a recent interview. “It’s a nonstarter for most of the parties and MPs.”
Maliki himself said in a recent Reuters interview that U.S. troops could only remain in Iraq if they had no immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, an absolute nonstarter with the Pentagon. The hundreds of U.S. troops who will be left behind to guard the mammoth American embassy in Baghdad and its consulates in Erbil and Basra -- and to man an embassy office dedicated to weapons sales to the Iraqis -- will have limited diplomatic immunity. Even so, American civilian officials will primarily be guarded by private security contractors, not U.S. troops. The State Department has talked of hiring as many as 8,000 such guards.
Obama’s Iraq remarks glossed over America's unpopularity in Iraq and his own administration’s failed efforts to sell the Iraqis on a troop extension.
“The last American soldier will cross the border from Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing the American people stand united in our support for our troops,” Obama said. “Today I can say that our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays.”
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That will undoubtedly be a good thing for the troops and their families, who have endured years of separation and constant fears of losing loved ones to the grinding conflict. The final withdrawals could also help salve some of the still-gaping political wounds left by the Bush administration’s initial decision to launch the invasion, a war which has been opposed by most Americans virtually from the start of the conflict in March 2003.
Ironically, a war launched, at least in part, to bring democracy and political freedom to Iraq will now come to an end precisely because of the free expression of those opinions. Iraqis from all backgrounds and beliefs wanted U.S. troops to leave. Come Dec. 31, for better or for worse, they’ll get their wish.