A Tale of Two Wars: Iraq

A Tale Of Two Wars

Whoever wins on Nov. 4 will, inevitably, be a wartime President. In the streets of Iraq and in foxholes in Afghanistan, U.S. troops continue to fight a two-front engagement on perilous terrain, against a constantly shifting array of adversaries. John McCain supported the war in Iraq and was a leading advocate of the surge there; Barack Obama opposed the intervention and calls for pulling out roughly half of all U.S. troops by the middle of 2010. But whether that happens will depend largely on the performance of the Iraqi government. And the possibilities for a reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq must be balanced against the likely need to send more to Afghanistan, where the situation now looks somewhere between difficult and dire. Here are two on-the-ground assessments of the wars that await the next President:

Perhaps no place better symbolizes the stranger-than-fiction quality of the U.S. project in Iraq than the Republican Palace. The sprawling sandstone complex on the Tigris River was a monument to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Then in 2003 it became the center of American power there–first of direct military rule, and following that, as headquarters of the U.S. embassy. Though U.S. officials removed some of the more egregious reminders of Saddam–like massive stone carvings of the dictator’s head–the palace’s marble floors and soaring ballrooms still make an incongruously imperial backdrop for the civilians and soldiers working to bring democracy to Iraq.

But the imperial phase of America’s involvement in Iraq is ending. Probably by the end of the year, the U.S. will return the palace to the Iraqi government, and embassy staff will move into a new complex just down the river. The U.S. will still have a heavy footprint in Iraq–the embassy is the largest in the world and cost about $750 million to build. But the departure from the Republican Palace is part of a larger transfer of authority. So far, the U.S.-led coalition has turned over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces in 13 out of 18 provinces. And the Bush Administration is trying to seal a deal with the Iraqi government that, Washington hopes, would enable the U.S. to pull America’s 152,000 troops out of Iraq’s cities and towns by July of next year and out of the country entirely by 2012.

This transfer of responsibility would be unimaginable had it not been for the success of the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, the deployment of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces and the uprising of armed Iraqi civilian groups–the so-called Awakening–against jihadist insurgents and sectarian militias. Violence in Baghdad is down 90% from its height in 2006 and down 80% in the country as a whole, according to Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. “In 2006, Iraq was a failed state, and in 2008 Iraq is a fragile state,” he says. But the surge is now over. Most of the extra 30,000 American soldiers have gone home, and another 8,000 will leave by the end of January.

No matter who wins the presidential election, the drawdown of U.S. power in Iraq will continue. The U.N. mandate that legalized America’s occupation is running out at the end of this year, and the Iraqi government, created by a democratic process that the U.S. put in place, is eager to take over the reins from what most of its citizens view as a foreign occupation. It is the orderliness of that transfer of power that will most challenge the new President. And he will be only partly master of his destiny. The fate of the U.S. mission–to make Iraq a stable, democratic country that is an asset rather than a liability in the war on terrorism–is increasingly out of American hands. The U.S. now needs to buy time for the Iraqi state to take control of its own problems–on security, corruption and sectarianism–before they become overwhelming once again. “This is what Iraqis say they want,” says a senior U.S. diplomat. “As Iraq gradually takes control over its affairs, you are going to see less American influence. The question is, Will [the transition] be orderly and deliberate … or does it become unduly hastened?”

To a large extent, how and when America leaves Iraq will depend on Iraq’s elected leaders. Iraq’s national parliament is a monument to the success of the U.S.’s nation-building efforts. It’s rare for a correspondent in the region to have an opportunity to meet so many politicians of such opposing views so quickly and so amicably, drinking tea and eating sesame cookies from the same canteen. Good luck doing that in Syria. But there’s a reason Iraq’s politicians are easy for a reporter to meet: most of them rarely leave the security bubble of the fortified International Zone, the miniature government city-state within Baghdad. The parliament is much harder to reach if you are an average Iraqi trying to get through many security checkpoints. And such is the fear Iraqi politicians have of their countrymen that there are no Arab Iraqi state forces inside the International Zone. The only Iraqis are Kurdish peshmerga forces, which are considered more difficult for insurgents to infiltrate. The rest are either U.S. soldiers or foreign civilian security contractors.

Moreover, start asking questions of Iraq’s politicians, and the veneer of national unity wears thin. The new electoral system created ethnic and sectarian political blocs that are pulling the country apart. Most of the Arab political parties, for example, suspect that the Kurds are preparing to expel Arabs from contested areas in Mosul and Kirkuk.

The next U.S. President will discover, however, that one thing unites most of Iraq’s politicians. Awkwardly, that is opposition to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the understanding that would formalize and legalize the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil. In late October, when the Bush Administration leaked a draft of SOFA that it had worked out with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, his Cabinet demanded a renegotiation. No particular provision seems to be objectionable so much as the agreement itself: it is practically political suicide for an Iraqi politician to be seen authorizing the U.S. occupation. So now the U.S. is stuck in a game of chicken with the Iraqi government. “We are telling them they are not going to get a better deal,” says the senior American diplomat. “I don’t think the situation is ready [for us] to walk out the door and leave the Iraqis on their own. But if that’s what the Iraqis want, we have no choice.”

However long U.S. soldiers stay in Iraq, they will largely be out of the war-fighting game, focusing mainly on training the Iraqi army. Will that be enough to prevent Iraq from slipping back into sectarian civil war? Cautious optimists hope so. “Iraq is well on its way to becoming a normal Middle Eastern country, with all the good and the bad that that implies,” says John Nagl, a retired Army officer who helped General David Petraeus draft the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual. “As long as Iraq stays Page 26 news, that’s O.K.” But if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be tough to handle. “We put ourselves in the position of fighting two wars simultaneously, and that’s leading to competing demands for scarce resources,” says Nagl.

Both the success of the surge and the challenges awaiting Iraq are visible in Dora, a neighborhood in southern Baghdad that was the scene of some of the worst urban violence during Iraq’s dark days. When Lieut. Colonel Ali Abbas Hamad, deputy commander of an Iraqi police brigade, first deployed in Dora in the summer of 2007, most of the neighborhood’s Christians had been driven from their homes by jihadis and militias, and the residents that remained didn’t dare leave their homes. “There wasn’t a car in sight,” Hamad told TIME. “The only person I saw fired an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] at me.” With the help of U.S. soldiers, the police began taking back the streets and now patrol them on their own. Stores are open, and a church is once again celebrating Mass. But Hamad said he never could have done the job without the help of a local Awakening group that the government is disbanding, concerned that the loyalties of its members are uncertain. Hamad thinks this is a mistake. “Some of these people helped al-Qaeda [only] because they needed the funds,” he said. “All they have known for four years is war. If the government doesn’t treat them with respect and help give them jobs, they will go back to war.”

It is a familiar tale. What Dora wants and needs most is reliable electricity and water. Yet Hamad says not a single government official has shown up in Dora while he has worked here. “Our officials only care about themselves,” he said, in the sort of resigned phrase that should depress any U.S. leader. “They are only in power for four years so they make as much money as they can and then plan to flee the country. What we need is a dictator.”

If one comes, there’s a palace waiting for him.

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