(CNSNews.com) – The timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq remains on course, President Obama said Sunday as he hailed the country’s national election as a “milestone.”
“We will continue with the responsible removal of the United States forces from Iraq,” he said at the White House, confirming that “by the end of the next year, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq.”
At least 38 people were killed during a spate of bombing and other attacks near polling stations on Sunday, but millions of Iraqis defied terrorists’ threats and turned out to cast their ballots. Obama noted that Iraqi forces had taken the lead in providing security.
It was the fledgling democracy’s first national legislative election since 2005, and the second since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein.
Democracies are rare in the Middle East; according to Freedom House, the veteran democracy watchdog, the only true electoral democracies in the region are Israel and Turkey, with Kuwait the country next closest to achieving that status.
This year, Iraq moved up a point in the annual Freedom House “political rights” grading, placing it below Kuwait, but above countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Freedom House attributes Iraq’s upward trend to improvements in the security situation as well as increased Sunni participation in the political process.
Early results from Sunday’s election are not expected for several days. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, which is assisting the process, says all ballots will be counted twice over.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced challenges from both fellow Shi’ites in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council of Iraq and Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister, secular Shi’ite and critic of Iranian influence in Iraq, whose Iraqiya alliance has attracted considerable Sunni support.
Political analysts doubt that any one party or alliance will win an outright majority in the newly-enlarged 325-seat parliament so horse-trading will likely lie ahead as leaders seek to build a workable coalition.
In the north, the dominant Kurdish parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were confronted by a relatively new opposition group, the Movement for Change or Gorran.
Obama in his comments Sunday stressed that the U.S. did not support any particular candidate or coalition, saying that “like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq must be free to chart its own course.”
“No one should seek to influence, exploit, or disrupt this period of transition,” he said, adding – in an apparent reference to Iran – “now is the time for every neighbor and nation to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The 2005 elections were boycotted by many Sunnis, and in the ensuing months Iraq spiraled into deadly sectarian conflict, eventually checked by the anti-al-Qaeda Sunni awakening movement in Anbar province and the Bush administration’s troop “surge” in 2007.
Under a security agreement that entered into force at the beginning of 2009, U.S. troops redeployed out of cities and towns by the end of last June. By the end of August of this year combat operations are due to end, and all troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
Whether that timetable – and particularly the August target – can be met may well depend on circumstances on the ground.
“As U.S. forces draw down in accordance with the president's guidance, resurgent ethno-sectarian violence or a resurgent Sunni nationalist insurgency may impel the Iraqi government to request U.S. military support,” say Stephanie Sanok and Nathan Freier, senior fellows in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
They say it is important that senior U.S. officials “decide now where, when, under what circumstances, and to what extent the United States will respond.”