Wednesday, June 03, 2009
New Envoy Faces an Iraq of 2 Minds About U.S.
By ALISSA RUBIN and ROD NORDLAND BAGHDAD — Among Iraqis there are two conflicting views of America’s policy now: the American military is leaving too soon, or the American military is not ever going to leave. Persuading its friends of continued American support while convincing its skeptics that the Americans really will go is the conundrum faced by the recently installed American ambassador, Christopher R. Hill. He takes office at a time of profound change in the American footprint here, the end of an era of military occupation and the beginning of an era of civilian diplomacy. “The key thing is to ensure a successful handoff from the military to the civilians and to make sure the Iraqis see that not as a reduction of U.S. influence or interest, but simply a change in how we present ourselves in this country,” he said, describing his mission in an interview Saturday with The New York Times. Or, as Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, an experienced Iraq hand, put it, “Hill’s role is to close the door softly and not to make a bang so that the whole house collapses.” Many Americans view Iraq as yesterday’s war and some have started calling Iraq a “post-conflict” society. But as Mr. Hill noted, it is still hard to use the words “normal” and “Iraq” in the same sentence. There are more than 120,000 soldiers here; 24 died last month, the most since last September, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks military casualties. One of Mr. Hill’s first public statements was an announcement of the death of two embassy staff members who were killed by a bomb on May 25. The problem faced by Mr. Hill and the Obama administration is that the shooting is not over and if Iraq lurches out of control again, it will be on their watch and there will not be a Bush administration to blame. Although Americans might wish it otherwise, Iraq is not yet a stable society, a united country or even a place where the citizens agree on the form of government. Just last week, Iraqi newspapers reported that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the influential Shiite religious leader, said that the next parliamentary elections would be a chance for Iraqis to choose what form of government they want, suggesting that even such basic decisions as whether they want a Shiite-dominated government or one in which positions are held by people regardless of sect and ethnicity was still up for grabs. Sunnis have not yet been integrated politically into Iraq’s power structure, nor have secular political forces. Both harbor profound doubts about the government’s intentions and its willingness to share power with them. Sunni suspicions have deepened with the recent arrests of leaders of the Awakening movement, some of whom are former insurgents who switched sides, at huge risk to themselves and their families, to fight alongside the Americans and the Iraqi government. Many see recent moves by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as a dangerous attempt to augment his power. One example is the creation of an anti-terrorism task force attached to his office, with a judge on standby to issue arrest warrants on orders of those of his inner circle. The last thing the Americans want is to go down in history for a messy war that in the end just replaced a Sunni dictator with a Shiite one. Iraqis agree on very little these days, not least of all on what kind of relationship they want with the United States. Some distrust its promise that it will withdraw its troops; others view that same promise as a betrayal and abandonment. Many Iraqis who worked for the Americans, whether military, contractors or even journalists, feel their own society rejects them because of that. More than 2,000 have already taken advantage of a fast-track visa program for Iraqi refugees who need to prove little more than an association with an American employer. Several thousand more are already standing in line for the visas. “I can never live in Iraq again,” said a young man whose pseudonym is Sami, an Army interpreter who began working for Americans when he was 17 in 2003, and will soon receive his visa to leave. “I am a dead man in Iraq, I have no future in Iraq. All sides hate the ‘terps,’ even the Iraqi government side because they blame us for all the humiliations they got from American soldiers, and we had to translate for them.” Followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr hold the opposite view. They say they are convinced the Americans will never leave. Some even believe the recent bombs in poor Shiite neighborhoods are the work of the Americans, a plot to give them an excuse for staying. In a February 2009 poll taken for the BBC, ABC and the Japanese television network NHK, 46 percent of Iraqis, a plurality, thought that the Americans should leave before 2011, and 60 percent thought that the Iraqi security forces were already ready in February to maintain security without American forces. “We can’t trust Americans anymore,” said Bahaa al-Araji, a member of Parliament’s Law Committee and another Sadrist. “There have been previous handovers, but Americans continue to run things.” It is doubts like those that have made the Americans realize that they must prove to Iraqis that they will honor the terms of the security agreement they hashed out in November, demanding withdrawal of combat troops from the cities by the end of this month, and complete military withdrawal by the end of 2011. Mr. Hill tries to assure friends and skeptics alike. “What we’re trying to do here is make the Iraqis understand we will fulfill the letter of the security agreement,” said Mr. Hill as he sat in his office in the heavily garrisoned American Embassy deep in the fortified Green Zone. As the three wartime ambassadors who preceded him found, nothing in Iraq has ever been easy. U.S. Pullout Is Reaffirmed SAMARRA, Iraq (Reuters) — United States combat forces will vacate all Iraqi cities on schedule by the end of this month, including the insurgent holdout of Mosul, the commander of American forces in Iraq said Tuesday. The commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, said the combat troops were on track to leave all cities, as specified in a January agreement with Iraq, including Mosul. “We’ve made some good progress up there in the last several months,” he said. “I feel much better about where we’re at in terms of security in Mosul. We’ll be able to turn it over.”