June 30, 2009 is a historic day for Iraq. The U.S. has officially withdrawn its combat troops from Iraqi cities in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). There are reports that Iraqis were out in the streets celebrating and fireworks could be seen in the skies. The date is more symbolic than anything else however.
Americans will still be in many Iraqi cities having their bases re-designated outside their borders. American advisers will still be with Iraqi units, U.S. troops will still go out on patrols with their Iraqi counterparts, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams will continue their work in the provinces. U.S. officials are also scattered throughout Iraq’s ministries in Baghdad.
Iraqi forces will probably be able to handle their duties, as most of the country is actually relatively quiet, and the sectarian war is over. The insurgency is a shell of its former self, fears of the Sons of Iraq or the Mahdi Army returning to the fight are overblown, and even the Iranian-backed Special Groups have been mostly inactive lately. This doesn’t mean Iraqis won’t still be killed daily, just that the ebb and flow of the fighting has changed from what it was in the past.
The bigger problems today are political, economic, and social. Iraq is on the eve of its fifth election since 2003, which only increases the on-going struggle for power amongst elites. Tensions between Arabs and Kurds are increasing, and could tear the country apart, while the conflict between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could lead to the beginning of democratic norms of ruling and opposing parties, or lead to autocratic rule. This has largely prevented Iraq’s leaders from thinking about how to improve the country, which is seen in the fact that the government is still largely dysfunctional, corruption is rampant, there is little rule by law, the economy is a mess, services do not meet demand, and only around 5% of Iraq’s 4-5 million refugees have returned.
It is unfortunate that Iraqis find themselves in this situation after three wars and years of international sanctions. Getting rid of Saddam offered many hopes and promises, yet Iraq still finds itself plagued by a slew of new problems that complicate everyday life for its people. The situation there is neither victory, nor a total collapse. The real question is will anyone care in the coming years?