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America's diminishing role in Iraq

Many Iraqis say passage of the US-Iraqi security pact ushers in a new era in which US military power will be replaced by Iraqi political power.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 2008

Pulling back: US soldiers looked through a book inside a Baghdad classroom in October. Under an Iraqi-US pact, troops will pull back to bases by the end of June 2009.

Loay Hameed/AP

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Baghdad

A surprising development has emerged in this city's streets and its corridors of power – the United States and its 140,000 troops have become increasingly irrelevant.

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Some Iraqi officials see the passage of a landmark agreement with the US last week as the beginning of a new era – one in which the US presence has become overshadowed and American military power is replaced by Iraqi political power.

"I think we are entering a new phase as a whole," says Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. "The end of an era – of Iraqi political dynamics taking over and coinciding with the end of the Bush administration – and the end of an era with the UN Security Council resolutions and the bringing in of the Status of Forces Agreement."

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) provides the legal basis for US-led troops to operate in Iraq after a wartime United Nations Security Council mandate expires at the end of December. The bilateral agreement essentially transforms the US from acting as an occupier – with sweeping powers to launch military operations, detain Iraqis, and bring equipment in the country at will – to having a more normal relationship with Iraq.

Under SOFA, American forces are to pull back to bases outside Iraq's cities by the end of June 2009 and withdraw entirely from Iraq within three years.

The security pact was the first such agreement since the invasion to outline specific terms for US involvement in Iraq. It was also the first in the region to be publicly debated and approved. Iraqi leaders backed the agreement after reassurances from President-elect Obama that his administration would not try to change the accord negotiated by the Bush administration, Iraqi and American officials say.

"I think there is wide recognition that the role of the United States – the leverage of the United States – has diminished and will diminish further," says a senior Iraqi official. "Some will welcome this but, ironically, those who were so opposed to the Americans before are alarmed by it."

"I want to kiss you," jokes Abu Ibrahim, a jovial Sunni security official to US Army 1st Lt. Benjamin Dalton. Abu Ibrahim, formally known as Mohammad Abu Alaa, heads 300 Sons of Iraq, a neighborhood security force, in Baghdad's Amariyah neighborhood.

His mother, three sisters, and his grandmother were killed when a US cruise missile hit a shelter in Amariyah in 1991, but like many of the other almost 90,000, largely Sunni Sons of Iraq, he has aligned himself with the Americans.

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