Iraq Teeters

While Obama's retreat is completed.

It wasn't as ignominious a picture as US helicopters frantically taking off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon -- the iconic image of defeat from the Vietnam War. But the sight of the last convoy leaving Iraqi soil nevertheless imparted a feeling of inexplicable sadness; a realization that the sacrifices made by the military and their families over the previous decade may have been wasted because a president was more interested in fulfilling a political promise than in seeing the Iraq mission through to a more successful conclusion.

The Iraqi people, deeply ambivalent toward America's role in the country, appear to have mixed feelings about the end of our military's combat operations. While celebrating the end of the occupation, there are many Iraqis who also wish America had stayed a little longer to allow the country to get on its feet and resist the pressure coming from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and especially Iran. And not surprisingly, our soldiers leave with a sense of pride in their accomplishments, relief that they are getting out of a dangerous place alive, and insisting that their mission was worth it.

Underscoring the ambivalence of the Iraqi people toward our withdrawal are the words of this schoolteacher from the deeply divided city of Tikrit -- Saddam's hometown and a place where Shia and Sunni divisions can turn deadly:

The American departure represents a joyous event, but our concerns are about the time after the departure," the Tikrit schoolteacher said. "Absolutely, after the American withdrawal the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites will get worse and worse.

But the American government has left Iraq in a lurch. Iraq's government is incapable of functioning in a way that adequately addresses the basic needs of the people. The Iraqi military is barely able to maintain domestic security against an array of enemies, much less meet the challenge of a foreign invasion. And Iraqi society is as fractured and riven by sectarian divisions as it ever has been.

Could any of this have been fixed by our continued military presence? Not alone, of course. But the US mission in Iraq was a stabilizing influence that might eventually have allowed the factions to coalesce, and given the government the confidence to resist Iranian influence -- a prospect that will now loom large in the next few years as Iran will ratchet up the pressure using its surrogates and militias to potentially dominate the weak national government.

The challenges facing Iraq without the American military to backstop efforts to create a functioning democracy appear almost insurmountable. Corruption is rampant. Violence, although much reduced, still affects the daily lives of all Iraqis. And the legacy of Saddam and his regime still hangs over the nation he brutalized for three decades. There is zero trust between Sunni and Shia in Iraq -- a consequence of Saddam keeping the lid on sectarian divisions by simply eliminating those who tried to stir the religious pot. And the Shias, oppressed for years under the dictator's Sunni regime, refuse to forgive the Sunnis and to this day, seek to freeze them out of the economic and social life of the country.

"These politicians will lead the country into sedition and civil war. Iraq now is like a weak prey among neighboring beasts," said one Shia shop owner in the southern city of Basra. With the Americans leaving, there is little chance that situation will change for the better anytime soon. The Iraqi military, while fairly competent in going after domestic terrorists, is in no shape to face the challenge of a foreign military intervention.

A Pentagon review earlier this year found "gaps [that] include little ability to integrate combined arms against conventional threats or external threats, little capability to defend Iraqi airspace, and maritime security shortcomings." There are also serious questions about the capabilities of Iraqi NCOs -- the backbone of any army. The quality of leadership appears to be uneven, at best. This is where additional training for Iraqi forces is vital -- something that President Obama could have, should have been able to negotiate with the Iraqi government. While there has been a vague "understanding" that training will continue, there is no agreement about how the 5500 American soldiers who are staying at the American embassy will be used to enhance the abilities of the Iraqi military.

But there is no bigger danger to the nascent democracy in Iraq than the near total breakdown of the Iraqi government's ability to function. On Sunday, the Sunnis threatened to pull out of the government completely unless the Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, apportioned the ministerial portfolio's -- especially in the security area -- more evenly between the two sects. "We are against the concentration of security powers in the hands of one person, that is the prime minister," said Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of the bloc. It seems that as the US presence in Iraq has receded, al-Maliki has become more autocratic -- another question that will never be answered now that the US has departed.

For the record, the last US serviceman to die in Iraq was Army Specialist David Hickman, killed on November 14 when a roadside bomb in Baghdad blew up his vehicle. The rest of the war's costs, compiled by the hard-left think tank Center for American Progress from relatively neutral or unbiased sources is a reminder of what the US military accomplished and what still needs to be done:

Coalition deaths totaled 4,803, of which 4,484 (93 percent) were American. The number of Americans wounded was 32,200. At least 463 non-Iraqi contractors were killed.

Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated to total between 103,674 and 113,265. (From the website Iraq Body Count which is generally recognized as possessing the most accurate information currently available.)

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees says the war resulted in 1.24 million internally displaced persons and more than 1.6 million refugees.

The Congressional Research Service puts the dollar cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at $806 billion.

More than 2 million American military personnel served in Iraq.

Total reconstruction spending to date: $182 billion plus another $107 billion for the Iraqi government.

Taxpayer money will continue to flow to Iraq. But one can certainly question just who it is we are funding: A highly sectarian Iranian stooge in Prime Minister Maliki? Or the very rough beginnings of a democratic Iraq loosely allied and supportive of our interests in the Middle East? Going forward, there will no doubt be setbacks and controversy. But whatever hope is engendered by the untimely withdrawal of American forces among the Iraqi people may be dashed by the stupidities and arrogance of the small-minded men in Baghdad and Washington who failed to see beyond the politics of the situation in Iraq and do what is ultimately best for both nations' interests.

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