by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 6, 2009
FINDING A WAY OUT OF IRAQ, AND NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- After nearly six years and the deaths of more than 4,250 deaths of U.S. military personnel, after spending more than $700 billion on a disastrous war of choice, after missteps and miscalculations that left Iraq a shambles, it looks like this nightmare is almost over.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced that the bulk of U.S. forces in Iraq should be back home by August 2010. A withdrawal of troops from Iraq was one of Obama's main campaign promises. The trick has been coming up with a plan that would be satisfactory to U.S. military commanders as well as the Iraqi government.
There are currently 142,000 U.S. service members in Iraq, roughly 14 combat brigades. The withdrawal plan calls for reducing that number to between 30,000 and 50,000 troops who would stay longer to advise and train Iraqi security forces and to protect U.S. interests. The remaining contingent will include intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft.
The 18-month strategy is a compromise between commanders and advisers who worry that security gains could backslide in Iraq if U.S. forces left on the 16-month timetable that Obama campaigned on last fall, and those who advocate a quicker withdrawal since the bulk of U.S. combat operations are done.
The complete withdrawal of American forces is expected to take place by December 2011, the period by which the U.S. agreed with Iraq to remove all troops.
Things have been relatively quiet in Iraq over the past year. According to Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who just left his job overseeing U.S. operations in Anbar Province, violence has dropped to an almost "meaningless" level over the past year in the area that was the home ground of the Sunni insurgency. Kelly also said that American combat forces don't have enough to do and most could have pulled out months ago.
It not just the U.S. soldiers who would be packing up for home. A sizable cadre of private contractors who provide services to them - about 148,050 defense contractor personnel working in Iraq as of December, 39,262 of them U.S. citizens - would also be leaving. Most of the more than 200 U.S. military installations in Iraq would be closing, too.
After six years, it's long past time for the United States to leave Iraq. One of the big stories to come out of the Jan. 31 regional elections in Iraq was the resurgence of secular nationalism. Voters repudiated the Shiite and Sunni religious parties and the Kurdish separatists in the first sign that the ethnic and religious politics that have dominated Iraq since the U.S. invasion are starting to wane.
Iraqis are now more concerned about unemployment, the lack of electricity, water and other public services, the crumbling schools and hospitals and growing political corruption than they are about religious and ethnic differences. Sunnis and Shiites seem to be now uniting around a central idea - reclaiming control of Iraq from the United States and Iran.
Can an independent Iraq again stand on its own two feet? It stands a better chance of doing so once U.S. forces leave and once an international effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq begins. This new nationalism can provide an important opening for the United States, which will now have to work with the European Union, Russia and China to come up with billions of reconstruction dollars. The Obama Administration will also have to work with Iran and the rest of Iraq's neighbors to keep them from fanning the cooling embers of sectarian violence into a new roaring fire of hate as U.S. troops leave.
In a way, the United States now has a chance to salvage something out of the ruins left by the Bush Administration, and a positive outcome may yet be realized. Whether that really does happen depends on Congress, the Obama Administration and the Iraqi people.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his daily blog on The Harvard Classics