Leaving Iraq

Only weeks remaining before American troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country.

Vice President Joe Biden announced the beginning of a new American relationship with Iraq during a surprise visit to Baghdad. With only weeks remaining before American troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country, Biden’s pronouncement comes as sectarian tensions and violence threaten to tear Iraq apart.

Biden told reporters at a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the exodus of the remaining 13,000 US troops from eight Iraqi bases at the end of December 2011 marked “a new beginning…that will not only benefit the United States of America and Iraq… it will benefit the region and will benefit the world.”

While Biden claimed the new US-Iraqi partnership would “bring stability to the region,” he acknowledged that America’s departure from Iraq would not remove “security concerns.” Nevertheless, Biden was “confident that [the Iraqi government] is fully capable of handling those internal security concerns.”

Unfortunately, Biden’s optimism isn’t equally shared by Iraqi Prime Minster Maliki or by American military commanders. While Maliki didn’t address Iraq’s security capabilities at the press conference, his feelings were best expressed days earlier when he said Iraq “remains in the circle of danger” due to rising sectarian violence.

For his part, General Lloyd Austin, the top American general in Iraq, said only a week before Biden arrived in Baghdad that the exodus of the remaining US troops would be followed by increased terrorist operations by al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups.

Austin’s assessment was echoed by Iraqi Interior Ministry official, Adnan al-Asadi, who said al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been given an opening to revive operations in former strongholds in Iraq’s northern and western provinces.

According to al-Asadi, “When the US withdrew from this triangle, which is Diyala, Salahuddin, Anbar and Mosul, a gap was left behind. Al-Qaeda has redeployed in the area.”

While Sunni-led al-Qaeda remains a serious threat to Iraqi stability, General Austin was also quick to point out that Iraq’s Shiite militias -- all supplied with weapons, training and funding by Iran -- were equally dangerous. According to Austin, the Shiite militias are “really focused on creating a Lebanese Hezbollah kind of organization in this country,” one that would be “a government within a government.”

In fact, at least three Shiite militias are reported to be active in Iraq, the most prominent being the Promised Day Brigade, which is under the control of anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Not surprisingly, followers of al-Sadr had greeted Biden’s Iraq visit by holding rallies in Baghdad and Basra, chanting, “Biden get out of Iraq” and “No to America.”

Unfortunately, the prospects of both al-Qaeda and Shiite militias ramping up their terrorist attacks once American troops leave is quite disconcerting given the record levels of violence both groups are currently inflicting upon the Iraqi populace.

According to Iraqi government figures, scores of suicide bombings and other attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in October 2011 killed 258 Iraqi civilians and police -- or about eight people a day -- the highest death toll of the year.

November was also a deadly month, as Iraqis were witness to a suicide bombing at a military base in the Iraqi town of Taji that killed 25 civilians and soldiers; two suicide bombings at a marketplace in the southern city of Basra that killed 25 people; and a series of bombings in and around Baghdad that killed 13 people.

Of course, the specter of both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups raising their terrorist profile comes at the same time sectarian tensions between the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government and Iraq’s minority Sunni populace have grown increasingly bitter.

That ongoing rift ratcheted up in intensity in early October when Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki received a tip from Libya’s interim leader, Mahmud Jibril, that newly discovered papers of Muammar Gaddafi showed that former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party were plotting a coup d’etat against Iraq’s government.

According to one Iraqi Interior Ministry official the ex-Baathists -- based in Syria -- were providing “logistics, finance, and intelligence” to Sunni-led insurgent groups in Iraq, including al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq.

Despite the fact that the Baath Party -- outlawed after Hussein’s ouster in 2003 -- had been comprised of both Sunnis and Shiites, Shiite Prime Minister Maliki responded to the planned coup by ordering the arrest of over 600 Sunni Baathists at the end of October.

While Maliki called the arrests a “nonsectarian operation,” to Sunnis -- who have become increasingly furious with being treated as an underclass since the toppling of Hussein’s regime -- his actions were seen as a direct threat.

So, not surprisingly, the provincial council in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Salahuddin province -- former home to Saddam Hussein -- reacted to the mass arrests by declaring in early November that Salahuddin was now an autonomous region, a symbolic act given that under the Iraqi constitution, autonomy can only be achieved through a popular referendum.

The Iraqi central government is constitutionally required to send any formal request for autonomy to the Iraqi Electoral Commission within 15 days of receipt, a deadline Salahuddin’s Governor said Baghdad has already missed.

However, it’s not too surprising that Maliki has helped delay the autonomy request, given his realization that if the Sunnis take the issue to the polls, they would more than likely approve autonomy, an action that would quickly pave the way for other Sunni-dominated provinces to follow suit.

Instead Maliki has responded to Salahuddin’s autonomy demands by alternately warning that the province will not become “a safe house for Baathists,” while at the same time pleading that any “talk of federalism would be a national disaster.”

Unfortunately for Maliki, his good cop/bad cop approach has fallen on deaf ears; not surprising given that his popularity among Sunnis has been steadily plummeting since Sunni demonstrations broke in several Iraqi cities last February protesting against Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.

While those protests led Maliki to say he would not run for a third term in office in 2014, it hasn’t been enough to assuage Sunni anger.

That anger has only been amplified in recent weeks when the Sunni governor of Anbar Province survived an assassination attempt when a bomb blew up beside his convoy near the town of Abu Ghraib.

Sunni leaders, including Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, a leader of the Sunni Awakening movement, accused Maliki’s Dawa Party and the Muthanna Brigade (a predominantly Shiite Iraqi Army unit stationed in Anbar) of being behind the attack.

For its part, the Anbar provincial council, which is currently debating whether to form a semi-autonomous region with other Sunni provinces in the west and northwest of Iraq, issued a statement that said the Muthanna Brigade “bears full responsibility” for the assassination attempt.

While Maliki has strenuously denied those allegations, he would be hard pressed to deny the fact that events in Iraq are quickly spinning out of control, edging that country ever closer to open sectarian rebellion.

Such an outcome would only serve to magnify and question the cost paid by the 4,485 Americans killed and the 32,226 wounded in the Iraq War since it began in 2003. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions aren’t anywhere to be found in the new US-Iraq partnership.

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