In Iraq, Americans have one foot out the door

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The hot dry wind kicks up the dust around the plywood table and broken chair that pass for a police checkpoint in east Baghdad. The lone policeman is unusually nervous.

For once, the police are afraid of us rather than the other way around. After a series of shootings at checkpoints by gunmen with silencers, even a reporter and an Iraqi bodyguard getting out of the car could be potential assassins.

In Iraq after the elections, almost nothing is clear and nothing is predictable — particularly for Americans with one foot out the door, hoping Baghdad doesn’t collapse behind them as they head off for Kandahar.

In the past three years, the country has pulled back from civil war, and in most places Iraqi soldiers and police, rather than insurgents and militias, rule the streets. But as U.S. forces withdraw, the real stability the military surge was intended to create is still elusive.

At the huge U.S. outposts that were Saddam’s air bases, the headlights of military vehicles pierce the dust and darkness as they head off to Kuwait on their way to Afghanistan.

It’s one of the biggest movements of men and materials in decades — what one senior commander calls a massive and complex job "in a fluid situation." About 40,000 vehicles, 80,000 containers and 3 million pieces of equipment are on their way out — almost half of them destined for the new front.

For the first time, the war in Afghanistan is costing the U.S. more than the conflict in Iraq — $6.5 billion a month in February compared with the $5.5 billion bill here.

Almost every other day in Iraq, U.S. forces close one of the joint security stations in the cities. The stations were at the center of the surge strategy aimed at protecting the population — a counterinsurgency strategy being transplanted to the very different climate of Kandahar. The "slow rising tide" of security is still for the most part holding in Iraq, but as the U.S. presence recedes here, parts of the shoreline are looking a little shaky.

U.S. commanders say they’re still on track for cutting American forces in Iraq from 90,000 to about 50,000 by the end of August and down to nothing by the end of next year. But political turmoil more than two months after national elections and a series of unforeseen attacks appear to have shifted the beginning of the time line — with some units due to leave in June instead of May.

“The August deadline of course was set at the end of February 2009 and it was based on a whole set of assumptions … all of those assumptions now are out the window,” said Brett McGurk, a former National Security Council official who helped craft the status of forces agreement with Iraq.

Among those assumptions, said McGurk, currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, were that elections would happen in December 2009, that a government would be formed three months later and that U.S. forces could withdraw fairly rapidly. Instead voting took place in March after months of wrangling over an election law.

More than two months after the national poll, election workers are still laboriously recounting each Baghdad ballot by hand in an attempt to prove that it wasn’t fraud that left Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with two seats fewer than his nearest rival.

In Iraq, there’s no such thing as a graceful loser.

The splitting of votes among four main political blocs has led to a frenzy of legal challenges, political machinations and hurried trips to foreign capitals for help. Political leaders seem to be talking to everyone but each other. Maliki and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi — both key parts of any coalition — have yet to meet. Instead, Allawi warned of the danger of a new civil war if his secular coalition and its Sunni supporters are ignored. He then flew off to Amman.

What will likely be the foundation of a governing coalition — Maliki’s State of Law and his former Shiite partners in the Iraqi National Alliance — are deeply split over who would be prime minister.

“Maliki is behaving like the head of a corporation and not a political list,” said Baha al-Araji, a senior official with the Sadr movement — most powerful bloc within the Iraqi National Alliance. “What held us back from forming a coalition before was Maliki’s insistence to be nominated as prime minister."

Over the past two years, Maliki has alienated almost every political ally he ever had — particularly the Sadrists against whom he essentially waged war when he sent in the Iraqi army to take back Basra from the Mehdi Army — a key reason for his popularity in the polls.

With followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holding 40 seats in the new 325-seat parliament, a substantial part of the new government will be made up of a party that refuses to talk to the U.S.

The Kurds — another essential part in any coalition government — are holding out for the best deal they can get on disputed territories and the status of Kirkuk. But first they have to make peace among themselves.

A June congress in Kurdistan is designed to smooth over differences — between President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the upstart change party, and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party — that threaten to keep the Kurds eternally divided.

“It’s interesting that we’ve seen fairly little in terms of Kurdish issues so far — I think that’s partly because the Kurds need to get their own house in order and try to get an agreement on a common front on negotiations with Baghdad,” said Sean Kane, a former U.N. expert on Kurdish issues now at the U.S. Institutes for Peace.

On the security front, U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have arrested or killed more than 100 Al Qaeda in Iraq members so far this year, including its two top leaders. The arrests seem to have made serious inroads into the insurgent network but the organization and its allies are far from dead.

Just this week, a series of bombings in the south of Iraq and attacks in Baghdad killed more than 100 people in the deadliest day so far this year. The top U.S. military commander in the south said he believed inter-Shiite fighting was more likely to blame than AQI.

Whoever is to blame, the real fear is that Iraqis will again lose faith in the ability of security forces to protect them and turn to Shiite militias and Sunni extremists to protect them — the genesis of the civil war four years ago.

So far, Iraqi security forces have managed to maintain a veneer of security and the Sadrist’s Mehdi Army remains waiting in the wings rather than openly out in the streets. But that threat is being held in reserve.

“They are committed to restraint,” said al-Araji, who says many of the dozens of injured in bombings last month were shot when Iraqi soldiers, despised by local residents, began firing randomly. “After the explosions it was possible for them to do anything. They could have stripped the army of their vehicles and their weapons in one hour. ”

In the U.S., most Americans have put this war behind them. But the most burning issues here are far from resolved. In this broken country, the issues that the U.S. grappled with and now faces in Afghanistan are still looming. Endemic corruption has replaced insurgent violence as one of the biggest threats to stability. In many places, crime and intimidation overrule the rule of law.

And with Iraqi political parties deeply divided, even the long-term existence of a country that encompasses the Shiite south and the Kurdish north could eventually be in doubt.

“Can we live together? That’s the question,” said a senior Kurdish official.