BAGHDAD – Here in Iraq, what matters most isn’t the forces President Barack Obama is withdrawing, it’s those that he’s leaving behind.
And, just as important, it's the Iraq that he's leaving behind.
As Obama moves forward with his plan to pull out 100,000 U.S. troops by 2010, a weary Iraq is trying to find a way to move out of the shadows of war. Even if it remains aware that it still needs help.
A glimpse of the tentative first, half-steps can be seen around Baghdad this week in everything from the celebrated re-opening of the Iraq Museum to the re-appearance of sleeveless wedding gowns, which were effectively banned when Al Qaeda had a greater presence on the street.
The plan to pull out the U.S. troops comes four months after the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement was passed in November. The agreement emerged out of agonized negotiations in a country where Iraqis, tired of occupation, would like a bit of protection but don’t want to see the people giving it.
It’s intended to leave up to 50,000 U.S. troops behind – a move that will be publicly condemned and privately welcomed by many Iraqi leaders.
“Most politicians are hypocrites,” says one senior Iraqi official. “They won’t say it publicly but they want the reassurance of a large residual force.”
What they don’t want is to see are the soldiers. In a climate where there have been several recent attacks by Iraqi security forces on their U.S. counterparts, the military is relying on "out of sight, out of mind." By pulling troops back to major bases, the only Iraqis many soldiers see are the occasional interpreters.
Although there are countless examples of model cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi troops on the ground, in most places the mistrust is mutual.
“We can’t go and talk to them – they’ll shoot us,” an Iraqi soldier guarding a bridge below a convoy of American troops told me south of Baghdad recently when I asked him to relay a message.
In almost all areas of Iraq except Mosul and Diyala province, the U.S. is pulling out of the combat outposts that helped the military surge reduce violence last year by placing American and Iraqi soldiers in the middle of cities to protect the population.
U.S. troops will stay though in many of the joint security stations where U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi police and sometimes the paramilitary force known as "the sons of Iraq" oversee security in most neighborhoods.
“We’re not being driven out of the cities,” said Colonel Ted Martin, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, in a walk through Doura market this week.
"If they want us to go, we'll go. But they want us to stay," Martin added.
His soldiers in full battle gear wove between wedding dresses hung on metal poles outside the bridal shops — the sequin-encrusted gowns covered in a layer of dust as they swayed on armless and sometimes headless mannequins.
Doura was one of the worst flashpoints of sectarian violence over the past two years. On one of Baghdad’s ethnic fault lines and at the intersection of major routes in and out of the city, Al Qaeda in Iraq moved in, driving out Shiites and Sunnis thought to be complicit and sparking fighting with Shiite extremists.
With bodies found in the streets almost every morning, anyone getting married wouldn’t be caught dead buying a sleeveless, Western wedding dress. It offended Al Qaeda’s interpretation of what is modest dress and could therefore make a bride or her family a target.
Now the gowns are like the canary in the coal mine. But even more promising, Iraqis seem to have gotten used to the presence in the streets of National Police — the paramilitary force was retrained after some of its commanders were caught running Shiite death squads. In what had been one of Saddam’s minor palaces this week, a clock in the National Police brigade commander’s office marked time around the faces of Shiite martyrs but no one seemed to be making a fuss.
The past few months point to an Iraq that is increasingly doing things its own way.
At the opening of the Iraq Museum on Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki appeared to have the same sort of puzzled half-smile on his face as he did when the now-famous pair of shoes came hurtling across a press conference room at President Bush’s head.
He had just listened to a speech by the tourism minister accusing other politicians of not having enough faith in the institution to reopen. The prime minister then waited patiently and for several minutes — in vain — for the interpreter who had left after interpreting her boss the minister’s remarks.
The small drama went unwitnessed by most Iraqi journalists at the museum. Iraqi security was unable to cope with the scores of journalists and dignitaries who turned up. The security forces were physically holding them back and trying to grab those who had managed to squeeze by them.
“Oh my,” said a European ambassador caught in the crush, brushing off his elegant suit after nearly being trampled in the doorway of a gallery. Had he known the museum still has no fire alarms, along with no security system or air-conditioning, he might have been even more alarmed.
Museum officials themselves debated whether it was actually an opening or just a small exhibition.
But that the event happened at all was a triumph of sorts for Malaki.
The home of 9,000 years of human civilization hasn’t been so publicly showcased since U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer — with Blackwater guards in tow — took a tour in 2003 when he was running Iraq.
In the intervening years, more than 5,000 pieces that were looted from the museum after the fall of Baghdad have been returned. Some of them were on display but the gold and other treasures from Nimrud and Ur are still safely in bank vaults — awaiting the day when it’s safe enough for the museum to open to the Iraqi public.