That’s how I’d describe my state of mind after hanging out for the past two weeks in Baghdad on my own and with the 82nd Airborne. I listened to ordinary Iraqis from all walks of life tell their stories when they came to visit a local psychiatric hospital; and I went on joint patrols through the streets of Karrada with American soldiers and Iraqi police. The best I can sum it up is, I really can’t see how anything but more bloodshed will result from the U.S. pullout. Some thoughts:
- The myth of June 30. The Status of Forces Agreement stipulates that U.S. troops will pull out of Iraqi cities and confine themselves to their big bases by July 1, 2009. This semi-fact keeps popping up in news stories and well-meaning analysis, and yet, well, it’s not exactly true. Sure, on that date Iraqi forces will take over the joint security stations and combat outposts vacated by the Americans. But the Americans won’t leave central Baghdad, for example. They will still be in their FOBs and some JSSs; they just aren’t allowed to conduct missions without their Iraqi counterparts picking them up at the gate. The fuss about extending or not extending the deadline is all politics. In reality, the transition will be much slower than news reports would let you believe.
- Army?? We don’t need no stinkin’ army! That’s right — security duties in Baghdad will not be handled by the Iraqi Army but the National Police. Politically this makes sense, of course. Maliki wants to show that security in the capital has improved to a point where soldiers can be sent back to barracks and the police, albeit heavily armed, can take over. Except they can’t. Neither the Iraqi public nor the American officers I spoke to, nor the police themselves, believe the NP will be able to stop the wave of violence everyone seems to agree is imminent once there are no more Americans on the streets. The NP simply doesn’t have the manpower or training or tenacity to man their checkpoints day in and day out regardless of how badly they get hit. They are easily demoralised and lose focus when bombs start going off. After having seen how they live, and knowing how little they get paid, I can’t really blame them. Still, the sight of a fearful Iraqi police officer being literally led by an American platoon on a short presence patrol through his own neighbourhood isn’t exactly encouraging.
- And the walls come crashing down. Here’s another stupid move: facing pressure from the local business community, the Maliki government has started to remove the life-saving but commerce-hindering T-walls in Baghdad’s central districts, supposedly replacing them with smaller Jersey barriers. Again, this is politics trumping security in the worst possible way. Talk to any American field officer and he will tell you it is premature and potentially disastrous, as the Iraqis haven’t had time to gauge the situation properly.
- SoI integration: the time bomb that wasn’t. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any evidence that Baghdad’s Sunni volunteers, regardless of how disillusioned they might be, will pose a serious security challenge. In fact, I think the spectre of a renewed Shia-Sunni civil war has been greatly exaggerated. If anything, thanks to the deteriorating situation in Kirkuk and Mosul, the Sunni and Shia Arabs are closer to having a common, unifying enemy than ever. That being said, I find it hard to agree with Nir Rosen, who seems to think the recent mass-casualty bombings in Baghdad are basically pointless. They aren’t; their point is to take away from Maliki the only thing he has going for him in the next election — the credit for ending the violence.
- SOFA — the world’s best body armour. As pessimistic as I am about Iraq’s future, it would be dishonest not to admit that for all intents and purposes the war in Baghdad is over for the Americans. After SOFA was signed, and, perhaps even more significantly, after Obama announced his pullout plan, attacks on U.S. troops have been few and far between. Iraq’s assorted troublemakers are simply saving their ammo for where it matters, making life miserable for those hapless National Police.