Iraqis left to puzzle over their future
by Chu Lan Huong
The last US soldiers have left Iraq to return home for Christmas, marking an end to the nine-year war led by the United States.
The military intervention launched by the then US president George W Bush in 2003 that began with a cruise missile strike in Baghdad to oust president Saddam Hussein has left the ravaged country struggling with insurgencies, sectarian tensions and an unsure position in the Arab world.
The US withdrawal has left many questions unanswered – namely, what has the US gained or lost from the war in Iraq? Is the political and security situation stable? And what challenges and opportunities will the Iraqis face in the coming years?
Among the gains were the overthrowing of the reviled Hussein; the creation of a firmer US footing in the region; and greater control over the country's oil supply.
However, according to analysts, the losses the US has suffered far outweigh the pros.
The war cost the US about US$4 trillion and the lives of 4,500 American soldiers – to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed and the 1.7 million people displaced.
Besides, the war adversely affected to the US's international image.
For President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfilment of an election pledge to bring US troops home.
For Iraqis, it brings a sense of sovereignty but fuels worries their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed thousands of people at its peak in 2006-07.
Many analysts said the Iraq war may be over for the US military but not for the Iraqis or for the US government as it tries to avert sectarian strife after the departure of its troops. According to an AFP report, Iraqis were overjoyed when the last US troops left the country, but voiced doubts their politicians could come together to rebuild the violence-wracked country.
"I am proud – all Iraqis should be proud. Our country has been freed," a man in Baghdad told AFP.
However, the Iraqis will face many difficulties ahead.
With the US-troop pullout, the political, social and economic chaos in the country is sure to continue for some time.
The protracted war has left more than 2 million widows and 5 million orphans and forced about 4 million people to flee the country.
Unemployment hits 40%
The unemployment rate in some cities is now 40 per cent, while 15 per cent of Iraqi children do not attend school. Meanwhile, industrial, energy and transport infrastructure is in ruins.
The US pullout has also brought security challenges and led to political infighting.
According to Pham Phu Phuc, a Vietnam News Agency senior journalist who has worked in the Middle East for years, security is the issue of greatest concern because it has depended on the US and NATO forces for the last nine years.
During a meeting at the White House this month, President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki outlined a broad agenda for post-war co-operation as they marked the impending end of America's long conflict in the Middle East.
But despite Obama and Maliki's pledge to work together to ensure political stability and strengthen its national defence, people are gravely concerned about Iraq's post-war situation.
Phuc said: "Although the Iraqi authority said it could ensure national security, the country could easily fall into chaos. At present, Iraq has 770,000 soldiers but they are not well-trained and equipped."
More al-Qaeda terrorist attacks are certainty, as evidenced by the numerous bomb attacks throughout the country during the US forces' presence and shortly after the pullout.
Earlier this month, a series of al-Qaeda bombings ripped through the mostly Shiite neighbourhood in Baghdad killing at least 60 and wounding nearly 200.
The Iraqi economy depends on oil production, without better security, the risk of oil pipelines being attacked is very high, Phuc said.
Along with security issues, the political situation is also of great concern.
One week after the last US troops left Iraq, a flare-up in sectarian tensions is threatening to not only invite greater violence but to tear apart the country's fragile political situation.
At the heart of the dispute is a decision by the government of Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, to issue an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.
The vice president is accused of running hit squads against Government officials some years ago – a charge denied by Hashemi, who is holding out in Iraq's Kurdish region while Maliki demands he be brought into custody.
The announcement of the arrest warrant has revived fears that sectarian tensions between Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities may erupt anew.
Recently, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a dire warning about the political crisis.
"This is a clear sign that the fragile political accommodation made possible by the surge of 2007, which ended large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq, is now unravelling," the Associated Press quoted them as saying.
"If Iraq slides back into sectarian violence, the consequences will be catastrophic for the Iraqi people and US interests in the Middle East, and a clear victory for al-Qaeda," the senators said.
"A deterioration of the kind we are now witnessing in Iraq was not unforeseen, and now the US government must do whatever it can to help Iraqis stabilise the situation."
So what does the future hold for Iraqis after the US troop withdrawal?
First of all, Iraq has regained its sovereignty and independence.
"The Muslim people have never accepted an alien force intruding into their culture and life. They could not stand the presence of foreign troops in their land. It is because for a Muslim any place they live is holy," Phuc said.
Second, Iraq will now have the opportunity of attracting foreign investment for the rebuilding process, which must take into account its multi-ethnic makeup.
However, even optimists are doubtful any kind of social and political stability can come to the country for years. — VNS