The departure of the last U.S. combat brigade leaves Iraq in much better shape than seemed likely only three years ago, but the political deadlock and the ambitions of neighbouring Iran remain worrying.
This event is an important turning point rather than a definitive withdrawal. The 50,000 U.S. military personnel that are left are not strictly speaking combat troops, but they are "combat-capable" and authorized to take defensive action. Even after 2011, American officers will be in Iraq to help buy military equipment, and teach Iraqis how to use it.
The U.S. has nonetheless left Iraq with an option to request military help as the need arises - a shrewd way to refute any accusations that there is a continuing occupation.
Moreover, five well fortified State Department compounds are to be protected by privately owned and operated security contractors, with perhaps as many as 7,000 employees, an apparently novel form of American quasi-military presence in the absence of the military itself.
All this is a far cry from what was expected under the previous administration; U.S. bases at a comfortable distance from major population centres were to stay indefinitely in Iraq (especially because bases had been removed from the Arabian Peninsula, in order to cease giving religious offence).
In spite of the political deadlock in Iraq, the U.S. has kept to its schedule. That decision carries risks, but is not reckless. The Iraqis have achieved a measure of democracy, although their politics are particularly vexed by religious and regional divisions.
The failure of the largest political parties to form a coalition government ever since the March election is discouraging, but need not be fatal. The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, ought to form an agreement with Iyad Allawi of the Iraqiya Party, so that both Shiites and Sunnis can be vigorously represented in the cabinet - making Iraq less likely to be manipulated by the radical Shiite regime in Iran.
But Mr. Al-Maliki's incumbency permits him to be passive-aggressive, giving him no great incentive to compromise - with the major exception that he lacks a parliamentary majority.
Long-established democracies such as Canada's can sustain minority governments for considerable periods of time. By contrast, Iraq continues to be subject to terrorist attacks, and its infrastructure and public services have not recovered to their level under the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi government will have to work harder to stand on its own, and build consensus. American devolution may yet induce it to do so.Report Typo/Error
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