article

08.12.10

The Endgame in Iraq

No one knows what will happen after the last U.S. troops leave Iraq. But as Ellen Knickmeyer explains, many of Saddam’s former subjects are already girding for catastrophe.

When Saddam Hussein’s own right-hand man pleads for American troops to stay in Iraq—as Tariq Aziz did from behind bars in his Iraqi prison last week—you have a pretty good idea how worried Iraq’s people are about the U.S. military officially ending its combat-troop presence in Iraq next month.

Aziz, Saddam’s old foreign minister, isn’t alone in his unease as the pullout draws nigh. The highest-ranking officer in the Iraqi military discomforted U.S. military officials with his candid off-script assessment Thursday, as the Sept. 1 deadline approaches, that American troops really need to stick around in Iraq for another 10 years.

With Americans no longer keeping all sides apart, Iraqis fear a return to the most bone-chilling days of sectarian violence.

In truth, U.S. forces have had a negligible combat presence in Iraq for many months. But two dates make it real to Americans and Iraqis alike that American forces are leaving for good, after seven years of occupation: the Sept. 1 end to the U.S. combat troops there, and the scheduled 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. forces.

With Americans no longer keeping all sides apart, Iraqis fear a return to the most bone-chilling days of sectarian violence, around 2006. Then, ordinary residents of Baghdad skulked in their homes with their families as rival Shiite and Sunni militias kidnapped and killed at will. An undeclared sectarian civil war left rows of bodies of victims, their foreheads caved in by the shots that executed them after torture sessions, on the sidewalks of Baghdad each day.

“I will never go back,” one Iraqi Sunni vowed this week as he and his wife and children arrived in the U.S. to start a new life as refugees here. More ominously, a former cabinet minister of one of the Shiite-led governments that replaced Saddam spoke confidently in a private interview this year of finishing off the Shiite war against Sunnis when the American troops finally leave.

Experts say there are still some reasons to hope things don’t get that bad. But if they do, America—overstretched as it is in Afghanistan, overstretched as it is in its economy—will have little choice but let Iraqis hash it out on their own.

Come what may, even coup or civil war, Iraqis can’t count on U.S. military help after withdrawal.

“As a nation, the U.S. has been at war for almost nine years. If you look at people embarking at their fifth or sixth deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan—I mean, talk about combat fatigue,’’ said Stephanie Sanok, who recently worked with military and diplomatic leaders at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on the U.S. withdrawal. “Right now, the administration is very focused—pretty much predominantly focused, on Afghanistan.”

Even if Iraq falls apart, even if the Iraqi government appeals for help, “the cost of sending forces back in after we’ve packed up and left would be something,” Sanok said. “The cost of trying to go back in would be overwhelming.”

The U.S. military force in Iraq peaked at more than 160,000, by 2007. By now, however, the last major U.S. combat operation is long in the Humvees’ rear-view mirror. Troop strength has hovered around 50,000 for some time. These days, U.S. forces in Iraq concentrate on protecting U.S. installations, training Iraqi security forces, and countering terrorism.

Anxious Iraqis can see some hopeful signs. Death tolls are a fraction of what they were at the height of the killing; nightlife has returned to Baghdad’s streets. And privately, officials at the Pentagon say al Qaeda—discredited even among its Iraqi Sunni base—no longer can count itself a major player in Iraq.

But Iraqis aren’t lacking in reasons for worry. Though still below the tolls from the worst of the violence, the number of Iraqis killed by violence nearly doubled this summer. Part of that is al Qaeda in Iraq trying to get back into the game. Part of that is spoilers trying to wreck prospects after withdrawal. Iraq’s leaders still can’t manage to pull together a coalition government, electrical service, or jobs.

Even there, Sanok sees some hope. Shiites are just as disaffected with their Shiite-led government as Sunnis are. And Iraqi youths, who have spent their childhood listening to car bombs, gunfire, and helicopter gunships, may grow up into a generation marked by conflict fatigue, wishing only for peace.

For now, though, Iraqis are voting with their feet—and staying away. The surge of violence in Iraqi in 2005 and 2006 led to the world’s second-largest refugee exodus. In all, nearly 2 million Iraqis fled their country. Today, despite the returns to relatively normal life in Iraq, and despite the pleas of Iraq’s government to the diaspora, fewer than 40,000 have gone back home ahead of the U.S. withdrawal, the United Nations says.

Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.