Iraq withdrawal: With US troops set to exit, 9-year war draws to close

Iraq withdrawal will occur by the end of this year, President Obama announced Friday. For the 39,000 US troops still in Iraq, withdrawal means most will be home for the holidays.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File
In file photo from November 2010, members of 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., walk toward a C-17 aircraft at Sather Air Base in Baghdad as they begin their journey home after a year in Baghdad, Iraq. President Barack Obama on Friday declared an end to the Iraq war, one of the longest conflicts in US history, announcing that all American troops would be withdrawn from the country by year's end.

President Obama announced Friday that all US troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this year, closing a war that deposed a tyrant and much-feared regional bully – but at great cost to both Iraq and the United States.

“After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” Mr. Obama declared at the White House. Most of the 39,000 troops still in Iraq should be “home for the holidays,” the president added, although the logistical challenges involved in removing so many soldiers in such a short time could mean the final few will not leave until January.

Obama’s announcement signals that US officials have been unable to negotiate with Iraq’s leaders a renewal of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) governing the stationing and mission of American troops on Iraqi soil. Pentagon officials in particular, backed by a number of congressional leaders, had called for leaving a force of between 3,000 and 5,000 in Iraq for an extended period.

But Iraqi officials balked at extending the immunity from local laws and prosecution that currently covers US troops in the country – US troops in places like Germany, Japan, and South Korea operate with such immunity – and the Obama administration was unwilling to leave troops in Iraq without that coverage.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, will visit the White House in December to mark the end of one era in bilateral relations and the beginning of a new one, Obama said.

The end of the Iraq war – a campaign pledge Obama made in 2008 – allowed the US to mark what the president called “a larger transition” in US foreign policy. "The tide of war is receding," Obama said, noting that US forces are beginning to draw down in Afghanistan as well.

But Obama’s Iraq statement will inevitably lead to questions – and certainly to political debates, especially with the advent of a presidential campaign –ranging from “Was it worth it?” to “Did the war set back or advance the hegemonic goals of Iraq’s neighbor, Iran?”

A war that former President George W. Bush set in motion in March 2003 cost the lives of more than 4,400 American troops and rang up a tab of nearly $1 trillion. The war ended the reign of Saddam Hussein – a tyrant akin to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, killed Thursday at the hands of his own people – but it also set off a gruesome sectarian conflict that plunged Iraq into violence and economic collapse.

In all, the violence claimed more than 112,000 documented civilian deaths, according to Iraq Body Count. Some organizations, though, place total Iraqi civilian and combatant deaths at more than 1 million.

Middle East experts have long debated the impact of the war on Iran and its designs for expanded regional influence. Some have argued that the US presence in Iraq was a deterrent to Iran, while others held that the war and stationing of American troops in Iraq not only opened the door to Iran – as some Iraqi Shiite factions sought to counterbalance the US presence – but also to Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups opposed to any "infidel” presence on Muslim soil.

But the fact that the American intervention resulted in the violent replacement of Iraq’s traditional Sunni-dominated power structure with a new “democratic” structure dominated by the majority Shiites – a group more closely aligned with the country’s historical enemy, Iran – was one of the war’s ironies.

Obama signaled Friday that the US intends to monitor Iran’s meddling in Iraq. “We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty,” he said.

Iraqis and the US diplomats who will work to forge a long-lasting civilian partnership will also face the question of what the US military departure means for Iraq’s internal stability.

The US military’s combat mission ended in August 2010, but US forces remain involved in the training and professionalization of Iraq’s 600,000-strong military. Moreover, US troops continue to play a key role in the intelligence-gathering, logistics, and other assistance that have allowed Iraqi security forces to reduce the levels of violence of just a few years ago.

US forces will leave behind an Iraqi society with sectarian and ethnic divides that are just as deep as when they invaded in March 2003. The test for Iraqis will be holding together and moving forward without either a Saddam Hussein or a foreign military presence.

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