Is the US quietly withdrawing from Iraq?


Richard Moore

The slow dismantling of the concrete walls is the most visible sign of a fundamental change here in the Iraqi capital. The American surge strategy, which increased the number of United States troops and contributed to stability here, is drawing to a close. And a transition is under way to the almost inevitable American drawdown in 2009.

There are now more than 148,000 United States troops in Iraq, down from the peak of around 170,000 a year ago, and President Bush has accepted the military’s recommendation to remove 8,000 more by February.

I do not believe for a minute that Iraq is in the process of ‘stabilizing’ in a way that would suit ‘US national interests’. If troop levels are being reduced, I’m wondering if that could be a sign that Washington is giving up on the Iraq project, like they did in Vietnam. The costs have always been staggering, and with the financial collapse, perhaps those costs are now deemed to be ‘no longer worth it’. 

just a guess,

October 10, 2008

As Fears Ease, Baghdad Sees Walls Tumble


This article was reported by Alissa J. Rubin, Stephen Farrell and Erica Goode, and written by Ms. Rubin and Mr. Farrell.

BAGHDAD — Market by market, square by square, the walls are beginning to come down. The miles of hulking blast walls, ugly but effective, were installed as a central feature of the surge of American troops to stop neighbors from killing one another.

“They protected against car bombs and drive-by attacks,” said Adnan, 39, a vegetable seller in the once violent neighborhood of Dora, who argues that the walls now block the markets and the commerce that Baghdad needs to thrive. “Now it is safe.”

The slow dismantling of the concrete walls is the most visible sign of a fundamental change here in the Iraqi capital. The American surge strategy, which increased the number of United States troops and contributed to stability here, is drawing to a close. And a transition is under way to the almost inevitable American drawdown in 2009.

There are now more than 148,000 United States troops in Iraq, down from the peak of around 170,000 a year ago, and President Bush has accepted the military’s recommendation to remove 8,000 more by February.

Iraqis are already taking on many of the tasks the Americans once performed, raising great hopes that the country will progress on its own but also deep fears of failure.

On Oct. 1, the Sunni-dominated Awakening movement, widely credited with helping restore order to neighborhoods that were among the most deadly, passed from the American to the Iraqi government payroll in Baghdad. There is deep mutual mistrust between the new employer and many of its new employees, many of whom are former insurgents.

Another element of the transition, which has attracted far less notice than the Awakening transfer, is the effort by the Iraqi Army to begin turning over neighborhoods to the paramilitary National Police. In the future, its officers, too, will leave and be replaced by regular police officers.

All three moves mark a transition to an era in which Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government seeks more control over its own military and sway over America’s.

“The Iraqi security forces are now able to protect Iraq,” said Joaidi Nahim Mahmoud Arif, a National Police sergeant in Dora, in southern Baghdad. “They will depend on themselves above all.”

In dozens of interviews across Baghdad, it is evident that while open hostilities have calmed, beneath the surface many Sunnis and Shiites continue to harbor deep mistrust.

If the changes work as hoped, it will be a huge step toward restoring normal life in Baghdad. Each move, however, has its pitfalls. Awakening members could return to insurgent activity. Bombers could take advantage of streets without walls. The National Police, long accused of being sectarian, could abuse its new positions.

American commanders concede the risks but contend that the changes are worthwhile, given the potential payoff.

“We’ve got to balance that: security with economic concerns,” said Lt. Col. Tim Watson, commander of the Second Battalion, Fourth Infantry, attached to the First Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, for Baghdad.

But commanders acknowledged that the cost of failure would be high. Referring to the Awakening transfer, Colonel Watson’s boss, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, said, “If the project were to fail, these guys would be out on the street, angry.”

“Al Qaeda in Iraq will be recruiting them,” he said.

Wariness as Walls Fall

Each slab is the shape of a tombstone and the height of a double-decker bus. Assembled on the streets of Baghdad, the walls stretched for miles and redefined the city’s look and feel. As they are removed, the bullet-pocked slabs are stacked in large storage zones waiting to be used elsewhere or moved to a central depot.

The walls are not coming down in all, or even most, Baghdad districts. They still surround the Green Zone, the once notorious airport highway, government buildings, checkpoints and entire neighborhoods like the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya.

But they have already been dismantled in some parts of the city. At a recent ceremony during the closing days of Ramadan, Sunnis from the Fadhil District, east of the Tigris River, joined with Shiites from adjoining Abu Saifeen to celebrate the removal of sections of a 15-month-old American-built wall that had divided their neighborhoods.

A checkpoint operated by Awakening groups from both neighborhoods now stands in the gap.

Col. Craig Collier, commander of the Third Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, said that in the past year, relations between Awakening groups in the two areas had “gradually gotten better and better, until now, you’re at the point where they’ve taken the wall down and the two sides get together a lot.”

He added, “They’ve been playing soccer.”

A nearby square on Kifah Street was the scene of a huge car bomb that killed 140 people in April 2007. It serves as a bus terminal, where buses are still barricaded behind blast walls. A billboard depicts a collage of photos of drivers killed in the bombing. “If you see my photo, say a prayer for me,” reads the caption.

Here, opinion about the walls was divided. Haider Falah, an Awakening guard, shrugged off past clashes between those in Abu Saifeen and Fadhil.

“We are all Iraqis,” he said.

But Alaa Hadi, 28, a watermelon seller, lost his brother in an earlier bombing that killed 137 people and destroyed much of the market. Fearing outsiders, he is against any walls coming down.

“Those who tell you they are not worried are lying, trust me,” he said. “Look around you. We do not know who at this very moment might be amongst us preparing to blow themselves up.”

Five miles south of Fadhil there is a blast-wall graveyard, for used barriers and ones that may never be put up. This is at Forward Operating Base Falcon, a United States military post near Dora, which was for years one of the city’s most dangerous areas.

Mixed, but majority Sunni, it was prey to Sunni insurgents as well as Shiite militia death squads.

In 2007, the center of Dora was retaken only after heavy fighting by American units that fought their way, street by street, through extremist strongholds.

The gains were cemented by the walls and by an Awakening movement carefully nurtured by the Americans. Many residents hailed the walls as protection from death squads and insurgents. In the last 11 months, not a single American has been killed in the neighborhood.

But as the situation calmed, people began to perceive the walls as not only protecting local businesses. They limited business, too, by walling off shops and preventing traffic from moving from one neighborhood to another. People began to mutter of living in a “sijen khabir,” the Iraqi phrase for big prison.

“They besieged the area,” said Adnan, the vegetable seller in Dora, who despite security improvements was too nervous to give his family name. “There isn’t much activity, and the market closes early. If you move the blast walls, everything will be O.K.”

The wall separating the market from the highway is not yet down, but its replacement is already in place. A hybrid construction that is half wall and half railing, it is much lower than the towering blast wall and is designed to allow motorists and pedestrians to see the shops on the other side and to approach much closer, for good or ill.

Building on Shaky Trust

There is one overriding issue when it comes to the Awakening Councils, the groups of mainly Sunni former gunmen who were hired by the Americans to stop attacking them: Will they return to violence?

Many were supporters of the Sunni insurgency, either for money or ideology, and many still feel aggrieved at the new order, in which Sunnis are no longer in charge.

The Americans won over the Sunnis by overlooking their crimes, paying them and rewarding their leaders with extra money. They held out the prospect that Awakening members would eventually get jobs in the Iraqi Army or the police. Those who did not would get civilian jobs, and the government would not conduct wholesale detentions.

But as the early-October transfer approached, it became clear that the Iraqi government would refuse to accept most Awakening members into the security forces, and that most of the civilian jobs simply did not exist. Furthermore, the Awakening leaders, some of whom had been paid thousands of dollars by the Americans, would get no more than the rank and file under the Iraqis. The Americans now say they will try to make up the difference for some of them.

The Awakening members’ fears have still not been allayed.

“Allah. Homeland. Salary,” reads one piece of protest graffiti painted near an Awakening checkpoint in Dora market, adapting the motto of a feared paramilitary unit during Saddam Hussein’s era.

Pointing to the words, Sgt. Alaa al-Janabi, 30, who works with the Dora Awakening, said, “This is our slogan.”

He continued: “What we are being paid now is not enough. It’s nothing. We have to buy gas for our cars, fuel for our generators. I have four kids; they don’t have shoes.”

“We’re not going to fight again,” he said, but then paused. “Unless they make us.”

Colonel Watson, the American commander in Dora, acknowledged that there was some risk of Awakening members returning to the insurgency or turning to criminal activity. But he said that every Awakening member’s fingerprints and retinal scans were on file, and his address and family were known both to the Americans and the Iraqi government.

“They are already identified by us and the National Police,” Colonel Watson said. “So that if they have any thought of going back to the insurgency it’s pretty difficult for them.”

Despite the Awakening’s wariness of its new masters, the government has come a long way in the last year.

“The suspicion and worry is much, much less,” said Safa Hussein al-Shekh, deputy national security adviser.

He accepts that many Awakening members have genuinely served the country and concedes that the government’s program may fall short in some areas. The lack of bonus pay for leaders is one problem he identifies. Another is anger when some areas get more security jobs than others. His final concern is that the government just does not have enough civilian jobs to offer.

“The economic wheel has not turned at enough of a speed to absorb this number of unemployed people, and it needs some time, maybe two years or a year and a half,” Mr. Shekh said.

But some government leaders still harbor grave doubts about letting former insurgents back into the fold. Any overture to them comes with warnings of dire consequences if the Awakening is not completely loyal.

“Anybody who comes to us, if they quit the insurgent approach we will welcome them with open arms,” said a Shiite member of Parliament, Hadi al-Ameri, who also leads the Badr Organization, a onetime paramilitary Shiite force trained in Iran and feared by Sunnis.

“But anybody who chooses a road that is not with the Iraqi government, death will be his fate,” Mr. Ameri said.

His antipathy is mirrored at the highest level of the Awakening. Many of its leaders, Sunni former Baathists, remain fiercely suspicious of the Shiite-majority government and particularly the police.

“In fact, there is no trust between us and the National Police,” said Sami Hassan Saleh al-Jubori, a leader of the Awakening Council in Dora and a former general in Saddam Hussein’s military.

He offered his own warning to the government. “If the Awakening is let go, Dora will go back to worse than it was before,” he said. “I hope you don’t consider this a threat.”

Sam Dagher and Anwar J. Ali contributed reporting.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
Privacy Policy Search Corrections RSS First Look Help Contact Us Work for Us Site Map