This month, more than 3,000 days after U.S. tanks stormed into Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled and one of the world’s most brutal regimes – notorious for gassing its own Kurdish minority – was defeated, the last American troops will leave Iraq.
“This holiday season is going to be a season of homecomings, because by the end of December, all of our troops are going to be out of Iraq,” U.S. President Barack Obama exulted earlier this month. On Wednesday, he will go to Fort Bragg, N.C. to celebrate the pullout with one of the returning contingents. “They’re going to be back home,” he president said.
In fact, more than 10,000 will stay in nearby Kuwait, reinforcing an already-major U.S. military presence in the Gulf and keeping a watchful eye on Iran which may seek even more sway over Iraqi affairs with the departure of the Americans.
Mr. Obama – among the handful who opposed the war from before the beginning and made ending the war a central campaign pledge – has been touting the pullout as a promise delivered.
Most Americans agree. The president gets a vote of approval from a majority of Democrats – and more surprisingly, about half of Republicans – for ending the war.
But the December 2011 deadline was, in fact, set by the man who started the war, George W. Bush, the former president whose premature “Mission Accomplished” stunt on a returning aircraft carrier in the spring of 2003 dogged his presidency, as did the war that went from early victory to long-running, bloody and indecisive counter-insurgency.
Saddam was ousted, but no nuclear, chemical or biological arsenals – the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – that underpinned the reason for war were found. The so-called ‘liberation’ of an oppressed Arab people quickly turned into a hated occupation of a nation riven by sectarian strife. The lightning-fast war that began with “shock and awe” bombing turned into a bloody, grim, conflict that left more than 100,000 dead, including 4,500 Americans, and sapped morale at home
Years later, after belatedly pouring tens of thousands of additional troops into Iraq – the so-called surge that may have averted Iraq spiraling into complete chaos – Mr. Bush went to Baghdad to sign the deal that set this December’s pullout timetable. That last visit to Iraq by the man who started the Iraq war is better remembered for the shoes hurled in insulting fury at the former president.
On Monday, Iraq’s elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet Mr. Obama in the Oval Office. The two leaders will talk co-operation and support as the Iraqi-American relationship enters a new phase. But the two are, at best, uneasy allies.
Mr. Obama may reap some election dividends for finally ending the unpopular and long-running Iraqi war. But by next November, the mess in Afghanistan where more than 100,000 U.S. troops – in a war Mr. Obama supported and escalated – may overshadow any Iraqi factor at the polls.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s fate remains uncertain. Its shaky democracy faces a simmering insurgency and interference from Iran. If Iraq slides back into violence, then the American pullout will seem premature and ill-advised.