Last month, as the final US combat brigade was leaving Iraq, an American soldier shouted from his armored vehicle: "We won! It's over! America, we brought democracy to Iraq!" Following the withdrawal, most American mainstream media coverage echoed a similar message. As a result, there is a prevailing misconception that the war is in fact over, and Iraqis are better off and closer to the promise of a democratic state.
This is not the first time the US media has celebrated an end to the Iraq war. In 2003, President George W. Bush's infamous speech declaring victory was lauded by the press, as was Paul Bremer's official “handover” of authority and sovereignty to Iraqis in 2004. In contrast, last month’s "Mission Accomplished" festival did not involve claims–by the Iraqi government or the Obama administration–that the war is over. President Barack Obama and others in his administration have called the August deadline a step forward within a larger plan to end the occupation before 31 December, 2011. Obama confirmed this commitment in his 31 August Oval Office speech reiterating that "all US troops will leave by the end of next year" in accordance with the binding Security Agreement, also referred to as the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
The Security Agreement was signed by the two countries in 2008, setting a clear plan with two deadlines for a complete US military departure. The first deadline required all American combat forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities, towns and villages by 30 June, 2009. That withdrawal was implemented on time. The second deadline requires all US troops (combat and non-combat) to leave Iraq completely before 31 December, 2011. This deadline also requires all US military bases to be shut down or handed over to the Iraqi government.
Last month's "combat forces" withdrawal is not part of the Security Agreement; it is a self-imposed deadline announced by President Obama, most likely in an attempt to muster support for the Democrats before November’s midterm elections. While renaming the US mission “Operation New Dawn” suggests a pivotal change in US-Iraqi relations, the reality is that it has more to do with American domestic politics than with the situation in Iraq.
Many Iraqis are not even aware of this recent troop withdrawal. Even if they knew, they would be unlikely to care much for three reasons: First, US combat forces have already left Iraqi cities, towns and villages since the end of June 2009, so this month's departure is unlikely to cause a "vacuum” of any sort. Second, all US forces, including the so-called non-combat forces, have the ability to engage in military violence. And third, reducing or increasing US troop levels does not change the fact that Iraq is under a foreign occupation.
For 19 years, Iraq and the US have been in a state of war, from the First Gulf War, through 14 years of sanctions and major bombing campaigns, and ending with the 2003 invasion and the seven years of violence and military occupation that ensued. Millions of Iraqis have been killed, injured, traumatized, displaced or forced to flee and live as refugees as a result
Today, the situation in Iraq is still miserable. Three-fourths of the Iraqi population does not have access to basic services like water, electricity, sewage, education and health-care. Despite having improved in the last two years, the Iraqi armed forces are still fragmented and infiltrated by militias and political parties. The Iraqi government is among the weakest and most corrupt in the world. And Baghdad is one of the worst places to live on earth.
It is unlikely that Iraq will achieve full security and stability by the end of next year. Yet, prolonging the US occupation will only exacerbate the challenges that Iraq faces. The US military presence has been part of Iraq's problem all along, and maintaining it will not help Iraqis rebuild their shattered country nor restore the nation's security.
Thankfully, both the US and Iraqi governments have stated their intentions to abide by the Security Agreement and bring the number of US troops and military bases to zero by the end of next year. Neither government has expressed any intention of canceling or modifying the terms of the binding agreement.
What most Iraqis want is the complete departure of all American troops and mercenaries and the rapid formation of a strong national government that is able to provide basic services and security for its citizens. Eight out of ten Iraqis are in favor of a complete US withdrawal on schedule by 2011, if not sooner. The last election results indicate that Iraqi public opinion has shifted away from sectarian politics towards demanding a strong national government that can end foreign interference. While Iraq is still in bad shape, there is hope that the next 16 months will put the country on the right path.
Raed Jarrar is an Arab-American blogger and political advocate based in Washington, DC.