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The myth of Iraq's squandered stability

The finger-pointing in the US over who "lost" Iraq ignores an important reality: It was never won.

By Staff writer / January 10, 2014

This undated image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant , left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province.

AP Photo via militant website

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In early 2008, Gen. David Petraeus was presiding over a strategy that was designed to restore security to Iraq and, crucially, give the country's political factions breathing space to pursue reconciliation and compromise.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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In March of that year, Gen. Petraeus said that despite a lack of progress on national reconciliation, he was hopeful that Iraqi leaders would "exploit the opportunities that we and our Iraqi counterparts have fought so hard to provide them." A key to his strategy was the Sahwa, or Awakening, a militia movement that drew its strength from Sunni Arab tribes who were sick of Al Qaeda's local affiliate and wanted to carve out a peaceful future in a new Iraq. 

As it turned out that opportunity was spurned at the very moment that it was offered. Instead, the political course that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies charted in 2008 has, more than anything, led to the state of near open-insurrection across the Sunni Arab dominated Anbar Province today. 

This is the key to unpicking Iraq's challenges today - and assertions from politicians like Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain that all would be different if President Barack Obama had managed to keep a residual force of 12,000 or so US troops in the country is highly speculative, at best. Iraqis failed to negotiate a durable and just peace when they were over 150,000 US troops in the country. Nor did the extended military drawdown prod them in that direction. The last combat troops left in December 2011. 

In the summer of 2008, reporter Sam Dagher covered the US handover of a supposedly pacified Anbar Province to Iraqi security control for the Monitor. The handover came towards the end of the US troop "surge," which was supposed to have routed Al Qaeda from its strongholds in Sunni majority areas. 

Things in fact remained quite bad. On the original date of the handover ceremony, a suicide car bomb killed 20 people, three of them US marines. The rescheduled ceremony in Ramadi ended up being canceled because of a sandstorm that grounded US helicopters. It was unthinkable that Baghdad-based Iraqi and American dignitaries could have driven the 70 miles from Baghdad to Ramadi, the provincial capital. 

Why? The lone highway through the province was a death run of insurgent improvised explosive devices, suicide car bombs, and ambushes. 

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