The last American combat troops have left Baghdad. Seven years after their arrival, their presence brought more to the country than just the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq is now a different country.
Iraqi children who used to wave at the troops, welcoming them, saying ‘Hey, mister!’ could never imagine the troops leaving their country. They pictured the extremely tall, heavily armed men staying forever.
50,000 US troops remain in Iraq officially supervising the training of Iraqi security forces in a operation known as the New Dawn. These troops, too, are supposed to withdraw by the end of 2011.
The Generals, though not speaking proudly of a genuine victory, tend to describe their seven year stay as a ‘successful’ one. Nader Ramo, the official spokesperson of the US troops, said that the army ‘faced many different sets of circumstances in the country but, in all cases, has performed its role successfully.’
However, he did not deny that there were some failures. Reluctant to talk about them, Ramo said even under such pressure, ‘the army performed all its required duties.’
When Ramo thinks of ‘failures’, he is most likely referring to the 4,419 dead and over 35,000 Americans who were wounded between invasion day in 2003 and 18 August. He is also probably referring to the scandals, such as the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, uncovered in April 2004, which led to the prison’s closure, or the targeting of civilians during combat operations, such as those revealed on video through the Wikileaks website.
Successes and failures have all added up to a very eventful stay in Iraq. 12 large military operations were carried out by American forces alongside Iraqi counterparts with over 19,000 people being detained as terrorists in prisons across the country.
Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the US State Department, said the war had cost the American taxpayer a trillion dollars, not counting the many billions in indirect costs that could be added on top, making the war one of the costliest in history.
One set of figures on which American officials were keen to remain quiet, however, are the numbers of Iraqis who died. In the first place, there are no accurate statistics, although unofficial sources estimate more than one million Iraqi victims since the beginning of the invasion, with 2.8 million displaced inside the country and 4 million more fleeing the country.
Now that troop numbers have fallen to 50,000, they are at their lowest level since the invasion. While numbers fluctuated in response to security threats during the occupation, since 2008, they have consistently fallen from their peak of 200,000 in 2007-8. After the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the US, American troops began reducing their numbers more quickly and left Iraq’s cities in 2009.
Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, deputy commanding general of US Forces in Iraq, told Niqash that the withdrawal of troops was ‘Cannon added that "the withdrawal of troops was in accordance with the stipulations of the security agreement. The remaining U.S. forces will complete the training the Iraqi security forces during the coming months then they too will prepare themselves to leave.’
Under the terms of SOFA, the US recognises the sovereign right of the Iraqi government to request the withdrawal of US forces at any time, while Iraq recognises the US right to withdraw under its own steam. Mechanisms for reducing troop numbers were also agreed on along with locations where troops would remain.
The US President, Barack Obama, achieved the election promise he made to withdraw one US battalion every month and to end the combat mission within 16 months of the start of his Presidency.
Officials on both sides are keen to stress that the troops remaining will not participate in any combat activity as in the past. Their only role is to help train and rehabilitate the Iraqi security forces.
‘The remaining forces will oversee the development of Iraqi security forces capabilities on the logistical level and will also contribute to the intelligence efforts,’ said Hussein Kamal, Iraq’s deputy interior minister.
‘Operation New Dawn indicates a change in the nature of the US troops’ mission from supporting combat troops to supporting logistic and intelligence troops. Not only that, troops will stay inside joint Iraqi military camps and will perform their tasks together with Iraqis.
The fate of the 125 private security companies still operating in Iraq, providing security to institutions, political parties, officials, sensitive sites and airports, their fate depends on the progress made by the Iraqi security forces in the future.
100,000 contractors remain in the country and that number is expected to rise. They are in place to carry out aggressive missions and fill at least in part the vacuum left by the withdrawal of American forces. Many years may pass before these soldiers of fortune, occupying Iraqi in a new way, leave.
With the government crisis continuing, these private forces could be called into action sooner than expected. The newly-built infrastructure, including concrete walls that divide Baghdad into 40 parts, rising up in some areas as high as 4.5m in heigh, as well as the 1,500 checkpoints around the city, are unlikely to be enough to completely stop security violations and suicide bombings.
With 260,000 already recruited into the Iraqi Army and a further 40,000 expected to be added soon, the Ministry of Defence hopes they will go some way to filling the void. However, many leaders, including the Iraqi army chief of staff, have stressed their forces inability to handle the situation on their own.
Only time will tell if their predictions are borne out. With violence on the rise this summer, that length of time might end up being shorter than many might otherwise have expected.