On June 30, Iraqi citizens celebrated what they deemed "Sovereignty Day" after the U.S. met the deadline to pull out all combat troops from its cities. While many rejoiced in its capital of Baghdad, violence was still continuing in other urban areas. Many Iraqis are happy about the security turnover, but still skeptical of their own government's capabilities to maintain stability. NEWSWEEK's Rebecca Shabad spoke with Kenneth Pollack, the acting director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution about the withdrawal. Excerpts:
SHABAD: Iraqi civilians have been living with U.S. troops for the last six years. How do you think they feel about Americans leaving?
POLLACK: I think there is certainly a lot of Iraqis who are very happy that the occupation is beginning to end and they see this as a very important milestone in assuming full responsibility for their own safety and for their own security and stability. I think that that's a very important element of pride. By the same token … there are also trepidations because of course no one is certain that the Iraqi security forces are going to be ready to do this. What's more is that we need to remember that they all have memories of the civil war when you had insurgent groups and militia groups roaming the streets and when in fact, the Iraqi security forces themselves were largely a partisan militia that was carrying out, in many cases, murderous operations on behalf of Shia chauvinists who controlled the government.
How do you think the pullout will affect the security situation?
Certainly the Iraqi security forces are a lot better trained, a lot better led, a lot more cohesive, a lot less sectarian than they have been in the past. But whether they are fully up to the standards that they need to be at to handle all of the issues in the cities themselves, we're going to find out.
Are there cities that are more at risk to violence than others?
Of course, and that's a really good point—it is uneven. Mosul and Kirkuk—two big cities in northern Iraq—are the two obvious candidates for problems. There are still ongoing terrorist operations and counterinsurgency campaigns being waged in Mosul. The Iraqi military is going to have its hands full, rooting out the last remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and some other terrorist groups and sorting out the frictions between Kurds and Sunnis on their own without the United States. In Kirkuk, you could have real problems with the Peshmerga [Kurdish Armed Forces] and the Iraqi Army maneuvering against each other, which is something that we've seen from them and doing so in highly provocative ways in which gunfights have only been averted by the presence of American advisers with the various Iraqi Army units.
Do you think that this is the appropriate time for the withdrawal—could it have been initiated sooner?
I think that it would be a mistake to think that you could have done it sooner. There are people who would suggest that we should have waited to do it. I think the big question mark out there is: if it becomes clear that the Iraqis are unable to handle security in one or more of their cities, is their leadership going to have the political courage to say "OK, in this city, we still need help," and to invite the American troops to come back in. That's going to be very difficult for Prime Minister [Nuri al-]Maliki because he has tried to make this into such a great achievement for his government. He is hoping that this is going to translate into electoral gains for him when the national elections are held next January.
What do you think the U.S. relationship with Iraq will look like in the future?
For the next two and a half years, it's largely defined by the security agreements; the United States and Iraq are now partners in the reconstruction of Iraq. We are both sovereign nations. The United States is there at the behest of the Iraqi government to assist them with reconstruction. You've got a lot of Americans who used to be viceroys who are now going to have to negotiate and persuade, cajole the Iraqis to do things that they once were able to order them to do. On the Iraqi side, they're going to have to step up to the plate, and they're going to have to actually take responsibility for a lot of tasks that are actually very complex and very demanding in which they were previously simply able to rely on the Americans to do for them.
What kind of military role do you foresee for the United States after the final 2011 deadline?
What the current security agreement says is that American troops will remain in Iraq until December of 2011—period, full stop. It does not say that there cannot be a follow-on agreement, and so there is every expectation that when this agreement ends, the Iraqis may come back to us and say, "You know, we like having American advisers and trainers here. It's helpful to us in terms of the professionalization of our military, it's reassuring to our people, we'd like to keep them here."