BAGHDAD — History rolled out past a reviewing stand Tuesday where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his defense minister stood watching Iraqi tanks, trucks and the pride of Iraq’s security forces, now wholly responsible for securing Iraq’s cities.
It was the same parade ground near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where we used to watch Saddam oversee his own huge huge shows of force against a backdrop of crossed swords held by models of his own fists.
This one, marking the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities Tuesday, was more benign. The two helicopters and boats wheeled past were just a hint of the full-fledged air force and navy that Iraq hopes to acquire once it gets more oil out of the ground. But it’s the soldiers, police, special forces, firemen and cadets that are at the heart of whether this country overcomes the civil war it has emerged from and the legacy of decades of dictatorship.
“It’s a great day — the first day we’re taking responsibility for our own security,” said Salah Naman Habee, from the National Police, an organization that has gone from commanders who ran Shiite death squads three years ago to a credible force.
“Those who think that Iraqis are unable to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake,” Maliki said.
But the question isn’t really whether Iraqis can defend their country — it’s what kind of country they will feel compelled to defend. Whether they can build a nation that encompasses all the ethnic and sectarian aspirations of its people is still an open question.
“We must remember that this is about politics,” said Iraqi deputy prime minister Barham Salah, who is giving up the post to run for office in Kurdistan. “This is about the political facts that will unite Iraqis — without that no matter how much security services you have and how much capability you have it will not be that high level.”
Even at celebrations in Baghdad on Monday night on the eve of the "Day of National Sovereignty," it was about politics for many of the revellers.
“God damn the Americans – they’ve only brought us misery,” said a young man from Sadr City, dancing wildly to shake away a tedious day’s work as a laborer. He did concede that they had gotten rid of Saddam.
On Abu Nuwas street, Iraqi police trucks festooned with ribbons and flowers drove past families, who in turn strolled past cheerful banners put up by the Iraqi Communist Party congratulating Iraq on its new sovereignty.
There is no shortage of symbolism in Tuesday’s date, and U.S. and Iraqi officials are milking it for all that it’s worth.
It’s a turnaround for the U.S., which long insisted on a conditions-based withdrawal of its forces rather than a deadline. Top military commanders now say those conditions have been met — that Iraqi security forces are more competent than they were a year ago, and that the military surge which helped dramatically cut attacks in Baghdad has laid the groundwork for sustained security.
Despite the horrific spike in violence that killed more than 250 Iraqis in the last week and a car bomb in Kirkuk Tuesday killing dozens more, the attacks are not thought to pose the threat to the very survival of the Iraqi government or security forces that they did when the country descended into civil war.
Officials, though, are bracing for more attacks as insurgents test the Iraqi security forces’ ability to defend the cities without the U.S. boots on the ground.
North of Baghdad, in the places where Sunni insurgents fled when they were driven out of the capital, it’s still a daily fight for Iraqi soldiers and police.
In Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, the new provincial governor, no fan of coalition forces, agreed last week that U.S. forces could keep five bases within the city where they work next to Iraqi forces. Instead of combat outposts, the bases will be known as joint security stations.
It’s an acknowledgement that although neither side likes to admit it, the country whose security forces the United States either destroyed or disbanded six years ago is not ready to stand entirely on its feet.
“Let’s be honest,” said Mayor Zuhair al-Araji in a meeting with the U.S. commander in Mosul last week. “How many thousands of police do we have in the city center — how many national police and soldiers and the coalition forces with all their technology and all their support ... if you pull all this logistical help, how is it all going to work?”
At another meeting with Iraqi National Police and Iraqi Army commanders, U.S. Army Col. Gary Volesky tried to figure out how they would make it work.
“I just want to make sure we all understand how we see operations on June 30 and how we can continue the relationship we have even with fewer forces in the city,” Volesky told his Iraqi counterparts, who responded that they still need U.S. help.
Apart from the helicopters, medivac facilities and ability to clear roadside bombs, what the Iraqi forces need the Americans for is essential but largely invisible to most Iraqis — logistical, intelligence and surveillance help.
“Iraqis are not going to see combat forces in the streets, no more habits of the Americans,” says government spokesman Ali Dabbagh, referring to the traffic-stopping convoys, the raids and unilateral detentions.
The restrictions, a political inevitability, are expected to make it harder for the U.S. to help the Iraqis.
Under the new rules, the U.S. forces will need not only Iraqi permission but Iraqi escorts for any movement. This includes undertaking the reconstruction projects the U.S. military had begun in many places.
All of that requires detailed coordination that hasn’t exactly been an Iraqi military trait, and relies heavily on the relationships built up between commanders at every level.
“If you’ve got a combative relationship with your counterparts you’re not going to get information and you’re probably not going to give information,” said Volesky, whose own relationships with his Iraqi counterparts involve varying degrees of trust — strongest with the Iraqi Army and perhaps the lowest with local police.
An ongoing investigation is still trying to determine how two men who were either Iraqi police or dressed as policemen opened fire in Mosul and killed a U.S. soldier and his interpreter in February.
The changing relationship leaves the U.S. military in the unfamiliar role of no longer being in the driver’s seat. In the north of Iraq, particularly — with the Kurdish-Arab tensions that is one of the biggest fault lines threatening Iraq’s stability — withdrawal or no withdrawal, there is still a lot at stake.
“We’re going to have to learn how to maintain influence without those boots on the ground that would normally make a difference,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
Apart from diplomatic leverage, there is a blunter instrument — in the north, the $900 million the U.S. has spent on reconstruction projects.
“There has been a lot investment in the reconstruction to rebuild the essential services infrastructures and if there’s an Al Qaeda safe haven in a neighborhood and the Iraqi security forces are unwilling to go into that neighborhood, we’re going to say ‘Listen, we’re not going to bring you essential services,’” Caslen said.
A lesson for anyone thinking that the June 30 withdrawal means that the U.S. isn’t still deeply involved in Iraq.
Read more about Iraq:
US withdraws from Iraq cities
In Iraq, festivities and mixed feelings
Iraq fails the democracy taste test