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.

Loay Hameed/AP
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.

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.

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.

"They have always supported us. They've always responded when we needed anything," says Abu Ibrahim. "This agreement is the only option to protect the country against Iran and to protect the Sunnis."

The protection that he and a wide array of others are seeking is from Iraq's Shiite-led government, which many Sunnis don't trust and others see as becoming too powerful.

In parliament, the major Sunni bloc succeeded in linking a series of political reforms aimed at checking Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's dominance to the passage of the US-Iraqi security pact.

Mr. Maliki came to power essentially by default in 2006 as head of a largely Shiite-Kurdish political coalition. Following an initial wave of popularity, he has come under increasing criticism for what are seen as widespread efforts to consolidate power before provincial and national elections next year.

"My hope is as we had the security surge in the last year, year and a half, the time has come for a serious political surge to fix the significant flaws in the system and resolve underlying political issues, whether it is power sharing, whether it is resources or revenue sharing," says Dr. Salih, a Kurd, who as deputy prime minister also oversees national security.

"These issues need to be dealt with as part of a national pact – if we don't take these political challenges seriously, and if we don't make headway toward a national pact, I am concerned that the security gains will be dissipated," he says.

At a public art show Sunday in Dora, which had been one of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods, teenage schoolgirls turned out to practice their drawing. A group of engineering students at the Dora Technical College say they didn't like having American troops in the country but wanted them to stay until security improved.

"We don't like the agreement but we probably need it," says Nabil.

While violence has dropped across Iraq, a series of bombings Monday hit US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, killing at least 32 people. Overall death tolls are still down compared with a year ago – civilian deaths in November numbered 296, compared with 538 the year before – but concern over Iraq's stability has turned from threats from extremists to more complicated political fissures.

"Politics is partly show but it is also a reflection of the struggles going on within society," says a senior Iraqi official. "If we don't address the underlying political issues the security gains could unravel. If we don't address the political issues we risk a confrontation among the mainstreams as opposed to the extremists."

The SOFA has also sparked fears among counterterrorism analysts and some Iraqi officials that gains made against Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups could be significantly set back as American forces withdraw and are replaced by Iraqi security forces that are still disproportionately Shiite.

"I'm worried," says one senior Iraqi official. "This is one area the Sunnis had major, major concerns about – they say we trust the Americans more than we trust the Iraqi security forces – this is not a statement of confidence in the present state of affairs of Iraq."

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