The Magazine

As We Stand Down, Can They Stand Up?

Iraq still needs close attention from the United States.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
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Yet there is no room to be complacent. Iraqis themselves are nervous about the coming American pullout. The United States still has 117,000 troops and 114,000 contractors here, but by August 2010 the figure is due to come down to 50,000 troops and 75,000 contractors. At that point U.S. forces are supposed to discontinue combat operations. Even before then the two headquarters that have run U.S. operations since 2004--Multi-National Forces-Iraq and Multi-National Corps-Iraq--will have been collapsed and shrunk into a single unit called U.S. Forces-Iraq. The Multi-National Security Transition Command, in charge of training Iraqi security forces, will disappear altogether; its commander will become one of the deputy commanders of U.S. Forces-Iraq.

By the end of 2011, the American soldiers are supposed to be gone altogether, even though by then Iraq will still have only a rudimentary capacity to defend itself from external aggression. It will not, for example, have a capable air defense system complete with fighter aircraft to intercept threats such as Iranian drones that stray across the border. As for internal security, the Iraqi Security Forces, now more than 660,000 strong, are growing in size and competence, but they are still vulnerable to determined attacks, as two major truck bombings in the heart of the capital in recent months attest. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, who sacked and arrested numerous security personnel after both incidents, clearly thinks that corruption is at fault--not a bad guess given how pervasive that problem remains at all levels of Iraqi government.

During the course of a trip across Iraq undertaken at the invitation of General David Petraeus, I heard numerous Iraqis of diverse political views express concern about the future of their country once they lose what one of them called their "American security blanket." Of the major political factions only the Sadrists remain determined to force U.S. soldiers out. "The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is a big mistake," a police chief in southern Iraq told me. "We need our friend the U.S. forces to stay a minimum of 15 to 20 years to sustain safety and security." "If nothing more is accomplished by the time of withdrawal," echoed a police chief in the north, "there will be fighting and big violence among the people. U.S. forces are the balance between positive and negative."

Several Iraqis mentioned the example of U.S. troops remaining in Germany and Japan after World War II and suggested that the United States should undertake an equally long-term commitment in Iraq. "Leaving Iraq at this very critical period is irresponsible behavior," a centrist Shiite politician in Baghdad told me. That is a different tune from what many Iraqis, led by Prime Minister Maliki, were singing last year during negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement, when they demanded a rapid American drawdown. But now that the drawdown is actually happening, many Iraqis are having second thoughts.

They are concerned about myriad problems ranging from the possibility of Arab-Kurd clashes to Iranian attempts to dominate their nascent democracy. The October 25 bomb blast in Baghdad which killed 155 people underlined the dangers that remain. Al Qaeda in Iraq, which claimed responsibility for this attack as well as an earlier bombing on August 19 that killed 100, has been battered but remains operational under its elusive chief, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. It is still the principal threat to the Iraqi state. But newer terrorist groups abound. The most prominent of these on the Sunni side is the Jaish Rajal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia (Men of the Army of the Naqshbandi Order), a group of former Baathist officers who are said to have close links with al Qaeda. They are a particular bête noire for Prime Minister Maliki and other Shiite leaders who fear a Baathist coup among Sunni military officers and accuse Syria of plotting with the Baathists.

On the Shiite side, Moktada al-Sadr's forces, once the main threat, have splintered, and Sadr himself has moved to Iran where he is studying to become an ayatollah while he licks his wounds from the defeats he suffered last year in Basra and Sadr City. But several of the Sadrist splinters remain dangerous, notably the Promised Day Brigade and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Even more dangerous is the Kata ib Hezbollah, a group sponsored by Iran's Quds Force that hopes to replicate in Iraq the strategy that Hezbollah has employed so successfully to carve out its own fiefdom in Lebanon.