Iraq fails the democracy taste test

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi colonel, taking a break from overseeing Iraqi soldiers practicing their rifle skills, explained why Iraq — although doing better than anyone gave it credit for — was never going to be the kind of place where human rights reigned or rule of law actually ruled.

“You brought us this democracy and it gave us indigestion — it was too much for us,” he said.

Two weeks from the much-heralded withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities, Iraq is marching toward full sovereignty to its own tune — one quite different from that envisioned when the U.S. and its coalition partners toppled Saddam to create an outpost of democracy in the Middle East.

An increasingly independent Iraq, perhaps unsurprisingly, has turned more … Iraqi.

Now that the country is no longer fighting a civil war, concern has shifted to even more complicated, potentially destabilizing threats —  power struggles between the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders and security forces, reconciliation of Sunnis and armed militias.

There are still 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but they are largely invisible to an American public preoccupied by the war in Afghanistan or just the battle to make ends meet. Moved outside the cities, the soldiers are waiting in the wings — combat brigades just a phone call away in case Iraqi forces need their help.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says, however, that he isn’t planning to make that call.

“We will not ask them to intervene in combat operations or in operations related to maintaining public order,” the Iraqi leader recently told Le Monde newspaper. “It is finished.”

He told the French newspaper that essentially the U.S. military's role would be carrying the bags — helping to transport Iraqi troops because Iraq has no planes.

A lot of that is for public Iraqi consumption. Even with the drawdown, the United States will still have soldiers in 320 bases in Iraq after June 30, according to General Ray Odierno. After the deadline next year for all U.S. combat forces to be out of Iraq, the U.S. is still expected to retain up to 50,000 brigade combat teams advising and assisting the Iraqis until all troops leave at the end of 2011.

Iraq’s defense minister made clear this week that despite the deadline this month for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraqi cities, U.S. forces would still be needed for surveillance, air support and logistical help.

Although Iraq became a sovereign nation with the transfer of power to an elected government several years ago, the knowledge that American soldiers are no longer patrolling Iraqi streets carries even more weight.

At checkpoints in and out of the Green Zone created by U.S. occupation forces, Iraqi soldiers seem to relish subjecting Western security guards to the same humiliations they’ve chafed under since 2003.

At the top, Maliki has chosen to assert Iraqi independence in some very concrete ways. Against all expectations, he has insisted U.S. troops will have to leave the city of Mosul, where American and Iraqi troops are still fighting an active insurgency. As late as April, Odierno and senior Iraqi military leaders had said Iraqi forces would still need help from the U.S. past June to keep the city secure.

The Iraqi government has also recently turned down a British request to maintain several hundred Navy trainers and support staff in Iraq — trimming it down to 100 trainers at the port of Um Qasr.

Iraq still does not control its own air space or territorial waters. To help remedy the lack of an effective Iraqi Air Force — the U.S. having destroyed it in 2003 – Iraq plans to buy French as well as American helicopters until the day it can purchase its own fighter jets. Control of its air space and sea port were part of an ambitious 20-year plan for the military scaled back with the drop in oil prices.

The lower oil prices and an Iraqi budget crunch has thrown a wrench into everything from school budgets to spare parts for Iraqi military vehicles. Equally worryingly, it has resulted in a freeze on expansion of the Iraqi army, including a program to bring back former Saddam-era officers as part of the reconciliation process.

The U.S. decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi Army and throw tens of thousands of officers out of work was seen as one of the major reasons for the insurgency that raged through this country.

Iraqi officials say several thousand former Iraqi Army officers it had promised to bring back would instead be pensioned.

A rebound in oil prices is expected to lead to a supplementary 2009 budget which could loosen some of the purse strings. The upside of Iraq’s own financial crisis though is that it has sparked an intensive effort to root out at least some of the rampant corruption.

“There just isn’t enough money for it anymore,” says one Western official. 

More on Iraq:

Long, hot summer looms in Iraq

The ground truth from Mosul

Searching for the exit

Analysis: As troops leave, Baghdad returns