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Iraq fails the democracy taste test

As the June 30 deadline for a US pullout from major cities approaches, it's back to nation-building Iraqi-style.

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