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Iraqis fear power vacuum after US withdrawal

Pullout reveals deep ambivalence over occupation

Though Iraqis have called for Americans to leave from the start of the occupation in 2003, the prospect of a drastic drawdown has raised anxiety - even among the nation’s Shi’ite majority. Though Iraqis have called for Americans to leave from the start of the occupation in 2003, the prospect of a drastic drawdown has raised anxiety - even among the nation’s Shi’ite majority. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
By Michael S. Schmidt
New York Times / September 11, 2011

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BAGHDAD - Sheik Kamal Maamouri, the leader of one of the largest Shi’ite-dominated tribes in Iraq, used to call the US troops here occupiers, demanding that they withdraw because he said they killed and imprisoned innocent members of his tribe.

But now he is not so sure he wants the Americans to go, at least not yet. Like many others across Iraq, he felt conflicted, and a bit frightened, after it was revealed last week that the United States may keep 3,000 to 4,000 troops in Iraq next year.

“The political changes that have occurred here and the security problems have led a lot of Iraqis, including me, to change our minds about the withdrawal of US forces,’’ Maamouri said. That was a view that few Shi’ites, empowered by the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government, would ever have spoken when it seemed the United States was never going to go.

“They bring a balance to Iraqi society,’’ he said.

Though Iraqis have called for Americans to leave from the start of the occupation in 2003, the prospect of such a drastic drawdown, from the 48,000 troops here now, has revealed another side of the Iraqi psyche. This is a nation that distrusts itself, with little faith in the government’s own security forces or political leaders.

It is as if people here never actually believed that the United States would leave, so all along demands for a pullout were never carefully weighed against the potential fallout.

This is not to say that Iraqis no longer want to be liberated from a foreign military, which of course they say they do. But Iraqis who once cheered the fall of a dictator recall all too vividly the chaos and bloodshed that came after Hussein’s iron rule was broken.

The politics of occupation have not changed. For months, US officials warned the Iraqis that if they did not issue a formal request to stay, and soon, it would become logistically impossible to slow the pullout. After months of stalling, the government agreed to open negotiations to leave some forces behind.

Then last week it was revealed that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan to keep as few as 3,000 soldiers in Iraq, enough to provide some training to Iraqi forces, and not much else. From the north to the center to the south, many Iraqis said they were shocked by such a small number and feared that the few Americans would become irresistible targets for violence, unable to safeguard themselves, let alone Iraq.

“If the Americans withdraw, there will be problems because there will be no great power in the country that everyone respects,’’ said Mateen Abdullah Karkukli, a 43-year-old Turkmen from Kirkuk.

But, reflecting his own mixed feelings, he said, “If they stay, there will be a bigger problem because insurgents and militias will have justification to resume their armed activities.’’

It is not altogether surprising that Kurds or Sunnis, minorities in the Shi’ite-majority nation, would be more apprehensive about an American withdrawal. Kurds worry that a strong Shi’ite-dominated government will upset the virtual autonomy they enjoy in the north. And Sunnis worry about violence from Shi’ite militias.

But there is also anxiety in unexpected places, like Babil, a Shi’ite-dominated city where residents have bitterly complained about midnight raids by American forces since 2003. Those feelings have not diminished, but they have been overshadowed by concerns that the Iraqi government would not able to fill the vacuum the US forces would leave behind.

“The leading parties now in the government tend to act like dictators,’’ said Maamouri, the tribal leader. “I am afraid if the Americans withdraw from Iraq, these parties will act even more like dictators. Three thousand troops will not be enough to deal with any of the threats facing Iraq.’’

Iraqis have little faith in their government preserving modest gains and in restoring stability because of bombings, assassinations and rocket attacks that are still carried out on a daily basis. And to a large extent they blame the United States for rupturing their society, and then planning to pull out before repairing the damage it caused.

Analysts here say the Iraqi security forces have concentrated so much energy on trying to stop violence within the country’s borders that they failed to guard against an external threat.

In Baghdad, the two agencies in charge of ensuring security - the Interior and Defense Ministries - have been without permanent leaders for a year and a half because of political infighting in Baghdad.

“The Iranians believe they have achieved something because the Americans are only going to keep 3,000 troops here,’’ said Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni who used to be a member of Parliament from the Iraqi Nation Party. “The Iranians and their agents are celebrating.’’

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