The last US combat brigade crossed into Kuwait Thursday morning after a series of night maneuvers through the desert, marking a new chapter in the seven-year-conflict in which the struggle for political power has replaced direct combat.
More than 1,200 infantrymen and other soldiers moved out by road in 360 armored vehicles over the past five days in night-time operations kept under wraps until the last troops crossed the border. Fighter jets accompanied them along a route cleared of bombs and landmines. More than 2,000 of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team soldiers had already flown out of the country.
They leave behind 50,000 other US troops in an unsettled Iraq still struggling to form a government, and many Iraqis fear that the prospect of US troops withdrawing entirely next year along with the political chaos could reactivate fighting here.
“Major war, serious war … is over,” says Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zubari. “You don’t have safe havens for the insurgents – you don’t have a war because all the roads leading to the south, north, east, and west are open. Still, the war is not over because you still have serious security challenges and a political drift that may lead to violence or the resurgence of violence.”
Failed attempts to form coalition government
More than five months after Iraqis went to the polls in an election billed by the United States as crucial to stability here, attempts to form a coalition government have stalled over disagreements on which factions would get the major posts.
Mr. Zubari spoke to the Monitor after a ceremony commemorating the 43 Iraqi diplomats and Foreign Ministry employees killed in a huge suicide truck bomb attack on the Ministry a year ago Thursday. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombing and other attacks on government ministries, but only low-level suspects have been convicted.
Zubari, flanked by an honor guard, laid a wreath as candles flickered below the names of each of the victims, written in gold script on a marble wall in the rebuilt ministry. Civil servants and uniformed workmen on balconies on the upper floors wiped away tears as an imam led prayers for the dead and a bugler played "the last post" for those fallen in war. More than 300 others were wounded in the bombing.
“This was closure,” says Zubari, who has been foreign minister for the entire post-Saddam Hussein era. “Throughout the last year, we were busy with caring for the wounded, for treating them, for moving back to the main building. But we’ve beaten the terrorists – they couldn’t subjugate us – in fact, we’ve worked even harder.”
While the Sept. 1 deadline marks an important milestone in the war, the date will be of mostly symbolic importance.
Although the Strykers were the last remaining combat brigade sent to Iraq, they have focused over the past year on helping secure the country for national elections held in March, rather than traditional combat. Under the US-Iraq security agreement, all unilateral American combat operations ended last June, when Iraq took full responsibility for security.
The remaining 50,000 soldiers also include combat troops and combat brigades tasked with advising and assisting Iraqi security forces rather than combat missions.
Under the Army’s withdrawal plans, the Stryker brigade was to have started leaving several weeks ago but decided to drive the eight-wheeled vehicles out rather than put them on flatbed trucks, meaning they could be available here longer if the US needed combat power during what has become a political vacuum.
“We know that this is a period of angst,” Brigade Commander Col. John Norris told reporters before leaving Baghdad, saying they wanted to retain the option of keeping combat power as long as possible before the Sept. 1 deadline. “We want the Iraqi government to succeed and we want the Iraqi people to succeed. “
With the departure of the combat troops, the US presence here shifts to a more diplomatic role. Iraqi security forces have dealt with ongoing insurgent attacks themselves, using US backup primarily for intelligence and surveillance, air power, and forensics help.
A new US ambassador
On Wednesday evening, the new US ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, presented his credentials to Zebari, saying he was looking forward to deepening the US civilian engagement here. The country is not only in a political deadlock; in the middle of scorching summer heat, there are severe electricity cuts, water shortages, and a 30 percent unemployment rate.
“Ambassador Jeffrey has a lot of respect,” says Zebari, who has lobbied for a more active US role in trying to break Iraq’s political impasse. “He has dealt with all the key players he knows them one by one. He can play a more active role to facilitate and to make some progress in government formation.”
Like many Iraqi officials, the foreign minister says he believes the attention on US combat troops leaving this month is primarily focused on an American audience.
“It’s really a fulfillment to the American public of the American election pledge that [President Obama] has given and this is a vindication of that…. I think it is very important for the administration.”
For some of the soldiers who drove into Iraq in the 2003 invasion, leaving by road had a certain closure.
“For me, I drove in as a 23-year-old – I had no idea what was going on in combat. We were in open-door Humvees," said Cpt. Chris Ophardt before he left Baghdad. “Now we’re driving out of a completely different country – some things are much better, some things maybe not as good, but we put our best effort forward.”