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Headed for the Exits in Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
August 2, 2010

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After seven years of war, the United States military is heading for the exits in Iraq. "Make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing--from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech to veterans in Atlanta today, according to prepared remarks. By August 31, 2010, the U.S. military will have just 50,000 troops on the ground--a far cry from the 165,000 in the country at the height of the war effort (AFPS). Washington is also sending a new ambassador to the country, as well as a new commanding general to Baghdad.

The timing of the drawdown from a Bush-era conflict that has claimed over 4,400 U.S. lives is far from perfect. Iraqi politicians are deadlocked five months after parliamentary elections. Leading Iraqi lawmakers now acknowledge that a resolution is unlikely before the fall, a protracted stalemate that will surely complicate the U.S. departure (WashPost). It's seen as increasingly unlikely that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Washington's longtime ally in Baghdad, will retain his hold on power; a coalition of Shiite parties that represented his best chance of staying in office broke off talks (WashPost) this weekend.

Bloodshed remains an even more pressing concern, and some have assumed it would stall the U.S. withdrawal. Many Iraqis fear the protracted political jockeying will bring a surge in violence (LAT), concerns born out by the latest politically inspired attacks in Baghdad and Anbar province on August 2, which killed five (AFP). The bombings underscored a trend that has accelerated this summer; figures released by Iraq's Health, Defense, and Interior ministries this weekend show 535 people were killed in July and over 1,000 wounded, the highest since May 2008 (VOA). While the U.S. military has challenged the tally--figures released on Sunday by U.S. forces in Iraq put the number of people killed in July at 222--there is little disagreement that Iraq's stability teeters on a knife's edge.

Iraq also struggles with a host of more mundane challenges, from electricity shortages (NYT) to bungled reconstruction projects, including massive mismanagement of development funds spent by the Department of Defense. Economic challenges are also hurting Iraqi development: Iraq's oil sector--exports accounted for 86 percent of the government's revenue in 2008--continues to be targeted by insurgent strikes (IraqOilReport). Exports dipped in June (Bloomberg), and production numbers remain stalled at around 2.3 million barrels per day, according to the State Department's most recent Iraq Status Report.

Timeline: The Iraq War

Early last month, administration officials reiterated that the United States was not abandoning Iraq, rather, the "nature of our engagement is changing." The top commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, told reporters in July that U.S. forces will continue to "train, advise, assist, and equip" Iraqi troops after the deadline. But some argue the United States needs to do even more. Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution argues Washington must reinsert itself into Iraq's political debate. Others question whether Iraqi forces are up to the task (AP). Given the level of uncertainty, Iraq's future remains tenuous. There are concerns Iranian-trained insurgents will fill the void (VOA) following the U.S. drawdown, and Vice President Joseph Biden admits there are no guarantees (AP) that Iraq will flourish as the United States' military presence fades. But, as President Obama's speech makes clear, Iraq's problems are no longer the top priority of the Pentagon.

Analysis

Iraqi political expert Reidar Visser says the delay in forming a post-parliamentary government could present a problem for long-term stability as the United States reduces its military footprint.

CFR's Rachel Schneller, writing for Chatham House, argues that while the timing of the United States' military withdrawal from Iraq is far from perfect--in the middle of Ramadan and amid a lingering political stalemate--"withdrawal is overdue for the U.S."

Background

This timeline explores the seven-year-long war in Iraq, from the initial invasion in March 2003 to Iraq's recent political developments.

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