BAGHDAD: On 30 June, Iraqi tanks and vehicles rolled out to participate in a national celebration of the withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities. Article 24 of the security agreement set this date as the deadline for US combat forces to withdraw from all Iraqi cities, villages and localities. The agreement also calls for all US forces to be withdrawn by Dec. 31, 2011. Accordingly, the American military had been gradually pulling its combat forces out of Iraq s population centers for months and completed the withdrawal two days ahead of the deadline.
When Iraqis and Americans concluded their negotiations on a security agreement last December, many observers wondered what the effect of an early, fixed-date withdrawal of American forces would be on Iraq s stability. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, to his credit, insisted that withdrawal would provide substantial momentum for the political process and would outweigh the security risks that might result from the withdrawal.
What, then, are the challenges and opportunities that withdrawal brings?
The first challenge is security: the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to successfully assume responsibility in each province. In the ten days preceding withdrawal, a series of attacks targeting civilians killed more than 200 Iraqis. Al-Maliki had warned of a potential increase in attacks around the withdrawal date aimed at discrediting the Iraqi government and ISF, but he was confident that the ISF would be capable of providing security for Iraqi cities after US combat troops withdrew.
Senior American officers affirmed this and emphasized that their forces would work aggressively in the outer rural belts to prevent infiltration of terrorists into the cities.
The ISF are making real progress and building confidence in the Iraqi capacity to cope with security challenges, including Al Qaeda and other militants. Iraq s intelligence capabilities also continue to mature. A series of large offensive operations conducted by the ISF in spring and summer 2008 demonstrated their ability to rapidly deploy in large numbers.
Local security forces in Samarra (100 km north of Baghdad) successfully protected more than 200,000 pilgrims who visited the holy site on 26 June.
Two years ago, Samarra was a dangerous area for visitors, as well as for local residents.
Political reconciliation, required to remedy Iraq s political, ethnic and sectarian divisions, is the largest challenge facing the Iraqi government.
Tensions between Arabs and Kurds over disputed territory, distribution of wealth and oil revenues and distribution of power in the north between the regional and federal governments is critical to Iraq s future.
The Kurdistan Region s constitution that was passed recently by the Kurdish parliament may add to these tensions. US forces had been playing a role in easing them by encouraging dialogue to try and bridge differences.
This role should now be transferred to the US embassy with the resources necessary to accomplish it.
Implementation of the security agreement and the withdrawal of American troops also present new opportunities to the Iraqi government. Iraqi public opinion generally sees the United States as an occupying power and wants it and other coalition forces to leave as soon as possible. Various militant groups have exploited the slogan, resisting the occupiers in their struggle for power.
Now, with the withdrawal of American forces, it will be a hard sell for the militants to convince people that they are fighting for liberty.
Unless they lay down their weapons and reconcile, they will lose many of their supporters. Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militants are a major security threat, released a statement urging Iraqi citizens to support the ISF and counselled his followers to participate in a new era of political resistance in Iraq and reject violent activities.
Even a top figure in the insurgency, Izzat al-Douri (Saddam Hussein s former deputy chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council), published a speech on the web early Tuesday asking his group not to attack Iraqi security forces, though he urged Iraqis to keep fighting Americans wherever they may be in Iraq .
The US redeployment also presents an opportunity for Iraq regarding its foreign relations. Some neighboring countries held negative attitudes toward Iraq because they felt the presence of American forces there posed a direct threat to them. They reacted by intervening to destabilize Iraq.
The withdrawal of American forces will enhance the opportunity to build healthy relations with these countries.
In addition, many countries were hesitant to build normal economic and diplomatic relations with Iraq because of their doubts regarding the ability of Iraq s government to prevail. Al-Maliki has rightly described the transition as a new phase that will bolster Iraqi s sovereignty and send a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our internal affairs.
Safa A. Husseinis a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council and now works in the Iraqi National Security Council. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from bitterlemons-international.org.