US President Barack Obama has announced that American combat operations in Iraq have come to an end after more than seven years. Deutsche Welle spoke with analyst Michael Lueders about the consequences of this move.
The new US mission in Iraq is based on training Iraqis
After more than seven years, the United States has formally ended combat operations in Iraq. Since the invasion in March in 2003, more than 4,400 US troops have been killed, along with an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians. The 50,000 US troops still in Iraq, in a training and advisory capacity, are expected to leave by the end of 2011. Deutsche Welle spoke with Berlin-based Middle East analyst Michael Lueders about the changing US role in Iraq.
DW: Given the almost daily bombings and killings by insurgents, what is actually going to change on the ground with the end of combat operations?
Michael Lueders: First of all, I think we will see the continuing decline of the security situation in Iraq. This is a very strong fear held by most civilians. It's not the case that the Americans were able to heal all the wounds and to end all the inter-religious and ethnic fighting in Iraq, but, nevertheless, there was a foreign authority that people, to a certain extent, had confidence in. This is now not the case any longer, and the big question remaining is who will fill the military and political gap.
Are US troop numbers being scaled back too soon?
It's a question of perspective. Many Western observers will say, yes, it was definitely too early, whereas many Iraqis will say it was much too late.
Maliki lost out in recent parliamentary elections
The present government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is too weak to control the country. There is such a huge void in terms of military and political rivalries within the country that Iraq is bound to fall apart. And many people fear Iraq might fall into a long period of civil disobedience, of civil strife and even of civil war. The ultimate winner of this situation, the ultimate winner of the American invasion in the first place, seven years ago, is, strangely enough, Iran. It is not really in America's interests to say so, but through the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iran lost one of its main rivals in the region, and now Iran is left as the strongest country in the region after Israel, or parallel to Israel. At the same time, Iran is more and more taking care of domestic issues in Iraq, because Iraq is a majority Shi'ite country, as is Iran.
So what is the Iraqi government to do to bring peace and stability to the country?
In theory, the first thing that should be done is that the Maliki caretaker government steps down, because Maliki lost a recent election by a small margin. He was the loser of these elections, but he refuses to step down. So Ayad Allawi, his main challenger, would, according to many Iraqis, be the better president of the country, because he has formed an alliance between the Sunni minority population and the Shi'ite majority population. It's very rare in Iraqi politics for Sunnis and Shi'ites to come together. For that reason, the Sunni population has no confidence whatsoever in the outgoing ruling and caretaker status of the non-legitimate Maliki government. This might sound a little complicated, but the basic issue is this: Iraq is a huge country in terms of land mass, but there is no centralized authority that is really able to take care of the country. Therefore, the country is on the verge of falling apart, of giving way to local gangs, to local militias that follow their own agenda, which is why hundreds of thousands of Iraqis continue to leave their country, mainly to Jordan and Syria, to escape the general misery in Iraq and the lack of security there.
By ending combat operations by August 3, President Obama is fulfilling an election promise. Did he have any alternative?
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been a thorn in the side of the US
He could have stayed longer, of course. Let's not be mistaken about the American presence in Iraq - there are still 50,000 American troops left in the country. There are an additional 20,000 troops in Kuwait and Qatar, and there are quite a few mercenaries who are going to take up positions in Baghdad and other cities around the country. So, should the situation become more dangerous, should there even be a military confrontation between the United States and Iran in the near future, there is no doubt that American troops are very likely to go back into Iraq. The reason for Obama to pull back American troops from Iraq is the congressional elections in November this year. He wants to keep his promise, to say, 'I brought our boys back home to the United States,' which is only partly true, because many of those soldiers withdrawn from Iraq will go directly towards Afghanistan and continue to wage another difficult war there.
How likely is that possible conflict between the United States and Iran?
There are quite a few analysts who say this is next to impossible, that it is too difficult to attack Iran. Theoretically, the United States would be able to do so in military terms, but they are not willing in political terms. In Israel the situation is exactly the other way around. Many Israelis would like to bomb Iran, but they do not have the military potential to do so. Nevertheless, the situation between the United States and Iran is deteriorating, and it is not only because of the nuclear issue. It is also due to the fact that Iran plays such a strong role in Iraq and in Afghanistan. From an American perspective, militarily speaking, Iran is a permanent factor of disobedience and turmoil, and so for this reason there are quite a few strategists in the United States who believe this problem can be finished by military means. Others say, however, that if Iran is attacked it would be too big a thing to swallow, it's too dangerous. Iran is not Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It's not Afghanistan under the Taliban. If we attack Iran we have a universal crisis, we have a worldwide war that might start in that part of the world. Iran will retaliate. The government in Tehran has known for years that an attack by Western countries might take place. So they are very well prepared, and it would be a very dangerous undertaking.
The US was able to oust former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein
The Iraq war in 2003 was launched by President George W. Bush with the aim of destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, none of which were ever found. What do you think will be history's verdict on this conflict?
I think most analysts up to this point are unanimous in pointing out that this American invasion, this Western invasion of Iraq was not a good idea. There is no reason to shed any tears over the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, the instability that was brought by this war and the high cost in human lives as well, all this does not justify an intervention that has not really solved any problems but has created new ones that are even more dangerous. Not only did Iraq not possess weapons of mass destruction, but Iraq was also not known as a safe haven for terrorists during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Now Iraq has become one of those havens. There is no central authority in Baghdad or elsewhere that is going to prevent Iraq from offering more and more radical Muslim groups a safe haven. So the legacy of this war is really not a positive one. I would even go so far as to say that the financial costs, the billions of dollars that have been invested so far in waging this war with no real end in sight, have added dramatically to the financial turmoil in the United States, and it has added to the United States losing its status as the world's foremost superpower. Other countries, especially China and India, are profiting from this American weakness.
Interview: Mark Caldwell (dfm)
Editor: Nancy Isenson