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Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010


End of Operation Iraqi Freedom

Officially, it's over. Thursday's withdrawal of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the last U.S. combat brigade in Iraq, marked the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The move fulfilled the promise of U.S. President Barack Obama to end his country's combat mission in Iraq by the end of August.

Yet, like the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner that his predecessor Mr. George W. Bush deployed in May 2003, the headline does not tell the whole story. A considerable number of U.S. military personnel will remain in Iraq, and their presence may continue even past the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline agreed to by the two countries for a complete withdrawal. Troop presence — like that ill-considered banner — is not the indicator of success. It is another milestone in Iraq's long march back to normalcy — an outcome that is by no means guaranteed.

A coalition of forces, led by the United States and predominately American, invaded Iraq in March 2003. The reasons for the invasion remain disputed, but the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein was intended to remove a threat to regional and world peace, and transform international relations in the Persian Gulf and perhaps beyond. It is unlikely that the architects of that move expected it to reshape the world as it did — undermining U.S. legitimacy, weakening the nation's economy and status, and tying down its military for such a long time. Saddam was removed but the cost has been astronomical.

More than 4,400 U.S. service personnel have died in Iraq since the invasion; an additional 318 coalition troops lost their lives. Nearly 32,000 U.S. troops suffered injuries. More than 9,500 Iraqi troops have died since the U.S. occupation began, and an estimated 100,000 Iraqi citizens died during the war (although those estimates vary). The U.S. will have spent $751 billion in Iraq by the end of fiscal 2010. It is estimated that the U.S. will spend another $51 billion in the next fiscal year.

And for what? Saddam was overthrown, his thuggish empire dismantled. Genuine democracy has been put into place, but it is unclear to what degree the government in Baghdad can be said to represent the will of the Iraqi people. (Indeed, Iraq's political parties have yet to agree on a new government in the five months since parliamentary elections were held in March.)

The divide between Shiite and Sunni sects has deepened, while Kurds in the north enjoy a political arrangement that is in their minds a prelude to genuine independence. The rise of the Shiite within Iraq has also meant a commensurate rise of Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. The long-awaited re-creation of Persian Gulf politics has not occurred — at least not as the Bush administration anticipated.

A brutal insurgency was beaten down but disorder continues. Every day there is another terrorist incident in Iraq; a suicide bomber last week took 48 lives and wounded 129 others in an attack on a Baghdad army recruitment center. While many Iraqis are eager to see the backs of U.S. troops as they depart, just as many Iraqis — including many of the same people — worry about the government's ability to maintain order without foreign troops.

The U.S. is well aware of these mixed emotions — and the reality that creates them. That is why the end of the U.S. combat presence does not mean the end of the U.S. military presence. At least 50,000 troops, at 94 military facilities, will remain in Iraq. That is a substantial reduction from the 170,000 troops in the country at the peak of the U.S. presence, but it is not a complete withdrawal. They will be part of "advise and assist" brigades, working on counterterrorism, helping provincial reconstruction teams and training Iraqi security forces.

Officially, the remaining troops will be gone by Jan. 1, 2012. But U.S. officials acknowledge that if the government in Baghdad wants to reopen discussions on that deadline, Washington would be prepared to talk. The remarkable pragmatism that Mr. Obama has demonstrated thus far would tend to make him inclined to consider an extension if asked.

Mr. Obama and his possible successor must ponder a simple question: To what degree does the U.S. military presence permit Iraqi politicians to act irresponsibly? Iraqi politicians have demonstrated a remarkable ability to focus on short-term calculations rather than on the national interest. If the U.S. troops were not in place, would Iraq's leaders be forced to make hitherto impossible compromises since they would then be responsible for national security? By the same token, does the U.S. presence keep a lid on the sectarian violence that threatens to engulf the nation? Neither question can be answered with complete certainty.

Americans, again, are fatigued by overseas military adventures. Iraq, the "war of choice," deeply divided the U.S. Yet even those who fought the invasion from its inception acknowledge the need to take responsibility for the damage that has been wrought. The drawdown of U.S. forces is not intended to signify that the U.S. is washing its hands of the fiasco, but to push Iraqis to take more responsibility for their future. Sadly, that decision remains a risky proposition.

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