Connect to share and comment

Searching for the exit

Obama vows to fulfill campaign promises to end combat operations in Iraq, but questions mount about what needs to be done before a pullout.

After a raid last week in which U.S. forces killed two Iraqi civilians, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told an angry public he would seek the prosecution of those soldiers. U.S. military leaders said they had Iraqi approval for the raid.

Just a few weeks after Obama announced his plan for an Iraq withdrawal, U.S. military officials signaled that the Iraqi government would likely ask American troops to stay in Mosul and Diyala Province. Iraqi security forces have improved dramatically but still rely on the U.S. for intelligence and logistical support and are unlikely to be able to hold those places on their own.

In the end, if a referendum on the U.S. troop presence in Iraq takes place in June as envisioned when the status of forces agreement was passed by parliament, Iraqis could decide to demand the pull-out of U.S. troops almost six months earlier than Obama himself has said they would be gone.

It will be a tough call — a recent spate of suicide bombings has sparked fears that Al Qaeda in Iraq is re-infiltrating areas where it had been pushed out.

Military officials say it’s too soon to tell whether the attacks are a temporary spike in violence or a more worrying, upward trend that could continue.

Although most Iraqis associate American troops with the inflammatory presence of armored vehicles and soldiers in their streets, their behind the scenes impact is much greater. In a counterinsurgency fight that relies heavily on intelligence gathering, Iraqis are still reliant on information obtained from state-of-the-art surveillance equipment that the U.S. wouldn’t sell them even if Iraq could afford to buy it.

“This is a war of intelligence and we have nothing,” a senior Iraqi intelligence officer told me recently in Basra. “We have no surveillance equipment, we don’t even have money to pay sources.”

The Iraqi government’s continuing mistrust of the paramilitary Sons of Iraq, who played a key role in the success of the surge, also leaves security here more precarious once U.S. troops pull out.

The group began as "the Awakening," a movement in Anbar province in which tribal leaders turned against Al Qaeda fighters they had been harboring and allied themselves with the U.S. The U.S. military helped expand the movement, now, 90,000-strong, and paid them out of U.S. funds. But the largely Sunni force has always worried the Shiite-led government which worries it could turn on them. Now that the Iraqi government has taken over, it seems that it’s only U.S. pressure that keeps the volunteer army on the Iraqi government payroll.

Ultimately, Obama’s desire to make good on his campaign promise to pull the troops out as soon as he could is colliding with the reality on the ground.  This war, frighteningly easy to begin under the Bush administration, is proving a lot harder to end.

For Which it Stands: 100 Days

Click here to go to the For Which It Stands Complete Guide