Obama Announces End to U.S. Combat, But Not U.S. Sacrifice, in Iraq, Where Political Instability and Violence Persist

By Patrick Goodenough | August 3, 2010 | 4:46 AM EDT

President Barack Obama announces that U.S. combat operations in Iraq will end on Aug. 31 in a speech to the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – With Ramadan approaching, it looks unlikely that Iraqis will have a government in place by the time the U.S. combat mission formally ends on August 31, prompting concerns about the potential for a flare-up of deadly violence.
Iraqi government officials claim that July was the deadliest month for Iraqis in more than two years. The U.S. military has disputed the government figures, but the fact remains that last month saw a number of bombings with a grim sectarian flavor.
Commenting recently on the lengthy delays in forming a government, the senior U.S. military officer in Iraq said while Iraqis were uneasy about the situation, “there has not been any degradation in security and stability.”
Gen. Ray Odierno told a Pentagon briefing on July 21 that the Iraqi forces were capable of providing necessary security, adding that even after the impending U.S. troop drawdown there would be the capacity to help the Iraqis if required.
But he also said he would start to be concerned if the political impasse has not been resolved and a government formed “by October or so.”
Saturday marks five months since Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new government, with no end in sight to the deadlock caused by one of the closest election results ever recorded in an Arab country.
None of the political groupings has anywhere close to the 163 seats in the 325-seat parliament required to form a government alone.
Two ambitious politicians, a former prime minister and the incumbent, both want the premiership:  Iyad Allawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiyya alliance won the March 7 parliamentary election, but by a margin of just two seats, 91-89; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s mostly Shi’ite State of Law coalition came in close second.
Maliki’s group in June joined forces with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the religious Shi’ite group favored by Iran which took third place in the poll with 70 seats. But their drawn-out efforts to form a government have foundered over the INA’s insistence that State of Law put forward a candidate other than Maliki for the prime minister’s post.
The INA, which includes the faction associated with the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, says Maliki’s refusal to step aside is the main stumbling block to ending the crisis, and on Sunday it said it was suspending coalition talks with State of Law because of the Maliki dispute.
Maliki said in a televised interview Monday that he would withdraw if his INA partners agreed on an alternative candidate, which they have not.
Not helping matters is the fact that the Iraqi constitution is ambiguous on the issue of who should have the first option of trying to form a government. Shortly after the vote, Maliki sought a Supreme Court opinion on the matter, and the court ruling suggested that if Maliki’s post-election horse-trading delivered a bigger potential coalition, then he should have first chance to form a government. Allawi rejected the interpretation.
With the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starting next week, the chances that the long dispute will be settled by mid-September at the earliest are slim.
Combat deaths decline
President Obama reiterated in a major speech Monday that the Aug. 31 target date for an end to combat operations was in place; U.S. troop levels are due to drop to 50,000 by the end of the month – down from a high of more than 160,000 in 2007, from about 144,000 when Obama came to office, and from around 70,000 today.
Those 50,000 troops, which will carry out various support and training functions, are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Obama noted that violence was “near the lowest it’s been in years” but acknowledged that with terrorists trying to stop Iraq’s progress “we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.”
One U.S. soldier was killed in hostilities last month, the second lowest monthly figure since the war began in March 2003. Only last December, when no American combat fatalities occurred, brought better news.
Four Americans died in hostile circumstances in April, three in March, two each in January, May and June, and one in February.
That total for the first seven months of this year – 15 U.S. combat fatalities – compares to 54 for the same period in 2009 (a drop of 72 percent); to 185 for the same period in 2008 (-92 percent); and to 607 for the first seven months of 2007 (-97.5 percent), according to a CNSNews database.
The trend in Iraqi civilian casualty figures is less positive, however, as underscored by the deaths of at least eight Iraqis in a shooting and two bombings on the day Obama addressed the Disabled Veterans of America in Atlanta.
The Iraqi government maintains that 535 people were killed in Iraq last month, a figure which it says it higher than any month since May 2008.
U.S. Forces-Iraq on Sunday disputed that figure and cited significantly lower ones, saying 222 people were killed in Iraq during July “due to enemy action” – including 161 civilians and 55 members of the Iraqi security forces.
The greatest loss of life reported during July occurred in two suicide bombings in Baghdad – one on July 7 targeting Shi’ite pilgrims in a Sunni neighborhood, killing at least 33 people, and one on July 18 aimed at members of a Sunni militia, killing 39 people. A July 21 car bombing near a mosque in a Shi’ite area in Baquba, north of Baghdad, killed 30 people.
“[T]he longer that the politicking over government formation drags on, the greater the risk that the various militias and other thugs associated with many of the political parties will try to take matters into their own hands – breaking the deadlock by assassination, intimidation or even massacre,” Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote last week.
“Nothing could propel Iraq back into civil war faster.”
Obama on Monday presented the Aug. 31 deadline as a promise kept, and “on schedule.” While it is in line with his withdrawal announcement at Camp Lejeune, N.C. in February 2009, it is at least three months behind his campaign pledge, made in a key Oct. 2007 foreign policy speech, to “get all of our combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months.”
In his announcement at Camp Lejeune Obama conceded that the end-August date was somewhat later than he had pledged while campaigning. He said he made his decision after close consultations with military commanders “to ensure that we preserve the gains we’ve made and protect our troops.”
The date for the final pullout, the end of 2011, is in keeping with the status of forces agreement negotiated between Baghdad and the Bush administration in late 2008.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow