With U.S. withdrawal, Iraq is struck with its greatest challenges
Paradoxically, it could be that only Iran and Turkey could sustain a country torn by political divisions and sagged down by a failing economy.
And the city of Fallujah shouted and rejoiced. U.S. and Israeli flags were set alight, hundreds of civilians raised placards bearing inscriptions such as "the resistance vanquished and expelled the occupier" and prominent figures promised that those "responsible for the murder of city residents will pay dearly."
Fallujah became a symbol of resistance and terror after a 2004 battle, one of the fiercest in the entire war, raged between joint American and Iraqi forces, on one side, and fighters comprised of al-Qaida terrorists and local insurgents, on the other.
The city, most of the residents of which are Sunni Muslims, represents the new-old threat facing the Iraqi administration after American troops took down the U.S. flag and returned home: Can an Iraqi army replace the American and international forces that took over Fallujah eight years ago? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claims that the Iraqi armed and anti-terror forces can supply the security the country needs. But that's not how the spokesman for the U.S. armed forces, Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, feels about it:
"Unless the Iraqi security forces continue to put pressure on al-Qaida, they could regenerate capability and come back in an even worse way than they have in the past," he said this week.
While the Iraqi armed forces number 700,000 troops, their missions have been doubled with the American withdrawal and their abilities are still limited. As long as 170,000 U.S. soldiers operated in the country, the Iraqi government was exempt from having to worry about its borders. But, now, many fear that, without air defense, the long borderlines with Iran, Turkey, and Syria could turn Iraq into easy prey for anyone aiming at causing violent skirmishes along those borders.
Iraq has ordered billions of dollars worth of military equipment, including F-16 warplanes, but it will take years for those supplies to arrive, with Iraqis estimating that it would take a full ten years before they're fully assimilated into the military.
Meanwhile, NATO instructors will no longer be instructing Iraqi servicemen, and will be replaced with about 750 private officials along with Jordanian officers in charge of drilling the Jordanian special forces.
But even the best instruction and the most high-tech gear won't be able to overcome the political divisions rife through the country's military leadership and the corruption which plagues it. Reports in Iraq indicate that commanders are buying their positions, that soldiers can purchase their way into certain missions, and that military fuel is sold in the black market almost without any supervision.
Iraq of 2011 may be safer and calmer than that of 2004-2007, but whether this calm equally calms the citizens' nerves remains to be seen. According to varying estimates in the West, the number of civilian casualties in Iraq this year is similar to its counterpart in Afghanistan. Doctors report death threats from family members of patients who died in spite of treatment. And while some of the doctors can afford to pay for private security guards, the teachers, who are reportedly being raped and murdered, cannot.
After failing to find WMDs in Iraq, the administration of former U.S. President George Bush adopted the exporting democracy slogan as a motive for the continued American occupation. However, Iraqi democracy – incomparable, of course, to the days of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein – is far from being a model for all nations.
Al-Maliki's regime is overrun by corruption. The Iraqi PM names senior officers at will; secret political deals are sealed; replacing due conduct and transparency; and now the central regime is threatened by districts demanding to be recognized as autonomies, along the Kurdish model.
In addition, opportunities to develop the country's financial standing are being washed away in the downpour of political strife, with the economy growing by only 0.8 percent last year.
Giant foreign firms may have begun investing in Iraq, especially in the oil sector, but the country, which holds the fourth largest oil reserve in the world, is far from the promise of producing 12 million barrels a day. Current estimates put Iraq at 7 million a day in 2017, compared with the present 3 million.
Until that time comes, Iraq will also have to solve its profound unemployment issue, with a jobless rate of anywhere between 15 to 26 percent – depending on who you ask, while it installs an electric grid that could supply Iraqi citizens with more than the few hours of power they currently get every day.
The "American era" in Iraq, thus, leaves the skeleton of a country behind, one in the fear of disintegration. Paradoxically, the ones with the power to give Iraq the staying power it needs are its neighbors Iran and Turkey.
The one, the U.S.'s greatest foe, and the other, highly suspicious of both Iraq's and Iran's intentions. Other nations bordering with Iraq, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria, will have to wait and see if it's turning into another war front, a nation run by gangs, or a quite neighbor.