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Iraq

Feb. 25, 2011


In contrast to Arab countries that seemed locked in political stagnation, Iraq in recent years has been in near-constant turmoil, even as a bloody insurgency and bloodier sectarian violence subsided to the point that America began to wind down its occupation.

In 2010, the fairest elections in the history of the country were followed by eight months of political stalemate before a government of unity was formed under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who fought his way to re-election despite having his party finish second in the parliamentary vote. President Obama declared the U.S. combat mission at an end, although violence remained at levels that would be considered high in most of the world.

In February 2011, the unrest sweeping across the Arab world reached Iraq. Unlike in other Middle Eastern countries, Iraqi protesters were not seeking to topple their leaders but were demanding better government services after years of war and deprivation. Their protests took a violent turn on Feb. 25, with government forces firing on crowds in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi and in Salahuddin Province, killing at least four people.

Religious leaders and the prime minister had pleaded with people not to take to the streets, with the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr saying the new government needed a chance to improve services and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki warning that insurgents could target the gatherings.

THE INVASION OF IRAQ

Almost immediately after ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — some argue, even before — President George W. Bush began to press the case for an American-led invasion of Iraq. He cited the possibility that Saddam Hussein still sought nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in defiance of United Nations restrictions and sanctions. Mr. Bush and other senior American officials also sought to link Iraq to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Both claims have since been largely discredited, though some officials and analysts continue to argue otherwise, saying that Mr. Hussein's Iraq posed a real and imminent threat to the region and to the United States.

In his State of the Union address in 2002 , Mr. Bush linked Iraq with Iran and North Korea as an " axis of evil. '' In his 2003 address , Mr. Bush made it clear the United States would use force to disarm Mr. Hussein, despite the continuing work of United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, and despite growing international protests, even from some allies. A week later Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the administration's case before the United Nations Security Council with photographs, intercepted messages and other props, including a vial that, he said, could hold enough anthrax to shut down the United States Senate.

The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003—the early hours of March 20 in Iraq—when Mr. Bush ordered missiles fired at a bunker in Baghdad where he believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding. Within weeks, with a "coalition of the willing" and disputed legal authority , the United States quickly toppled Mr. Hussein's government, despite fierce fighting by some paramilitary groups. The Iraqi leader himself reportedly narrowly avoided being killed in the war's first air strikes. The Army's Third Infantry Division entered Baghdad on April 5, seizing what was once called Saddam Hussein International Airport. On April 9, a statue of Mr. Hussein in Firdos Square was pulled down with the help of the Marines. That effectively sealed the capture of Baghdad, but began a new war.

CHAOS AND INSURGENCY

The fall of Iraq's brutal, powerful dictator unleashed a wave of celebration, then chaos, looting, violence and ultimately insurgency. Rather than quickly return power to the Iraqis, including political and religious leaders returning from exile, the United States created an occupation authority that took steps widely blamed for alienating many Iraqis and igniting Sunni-led resistance. They included disbanding the Iraqi Army and purging members of the former ruling Baath Party from government and public life, both with consequences felt to this day. On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush appeared on an American aircraft carrier that carried a banner declaring " Mission Accomplished ," a theatrical touch that even the president years later acknowledged sent the wrong message.

In the security and political vacuum that followed the invasion, violence erupted against the American-led occupation forces and against the United Nations headquarters, which was bombed in August 2003, killing the body's special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003—the former leader was found unshaven and disheveled in a spider hole north of Baghdad—did nothing to halt the bloodshed. Nor did the formal transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people in June 2004, which took place a few months after the publication of photographs showing the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib had further fueled anger and anti-American sentiment.

In January 2005, the Americans orchestrated Iraq's first multi-party elections in five decades, a moment symbolized by Iraqis waving fingers marked in purple ink after they voted. The elections for a Transitional National Assembly reversed the historic political domination of the Sunnis, who had largely boycotted the vote. A Shiite coalition supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric, won a plurality, and put Shiites in power, along with the Kurds. Saddam Hussein stood trial, remaining defiant and unrepentant as he faced charges of massacring Shiites in Dujail in 1982.

A new constitution followed by the end of the year, and new elections in January 2006 cemented the new balance of power, but also exposed simmering sectarian tensions, as many Sunnis boycotted. In February 2006, the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of the most revered Shiite shrines, set off a convulsion of violence against both Sunnis and Shiites that amounted to a civil war. In Baghdad, it soon was not unusual for 30 bodies or more to be found on the streets every day, as Shiite death squads operated without hindrance and Sunnis retaliated. That steady toll was punctuated by spikes from bomb blasts, usually aimed at Shiites. Even more families fled, as neighborhoods and entire cities were ethnically cleansed. Ultimately, more than 2 million people were displaced in Iraq, and many of them are still abroad to this day, unable or too afraid to return.

Arab and Kurdish tensions also ran high. In Mosul, a disputed city in the north, Sunni militants attacked Kurdish and Christian enclaves. The fate of Kirkuk, populated by Arabs, Kurds and smaller minority groups, remains disputed territory, punctured routinely by killings and bombings. After a political impasse that reflected the chaos in the country, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a little-known Shiite politician previously known as Jawad al-Maliki, became Iraq's first permanent prime minister in April 2006.

AT HOME

The messy aftermath of a swift military victory made the war in Iraq increasingly unpopular at home, but not enough to derail Mr. Bush's re-election in November 2004. Almost immediately afterwards, though, his approval rating dropped as the war dragged on. It never recovered. By 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress. Their victory rested in large part on the growing sentiment against the war, which rose with the toll of American deaths, which reached 3,000 by the end of the year, and its ever spiraling costs. Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death just before the Congressional elections, and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned the day after the vote, widely blamed for having mismanaged the war.

In the face of rising unpopularity and against the advice of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of prominent Americans, Mr. Bush ordered a large increase in American forces, then totaling roughly 130,000 troops.

The "surge," as the increase became known, eventually raised the number of troops to more than 170,000. It coincided with a new counterinsurgency strategy that had been introduced by a new American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the flowering of a once-unlikely alliance with Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere. Moktada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric, whose followers in the Mahdi Army militia had been responsible for some of the worst brutality in Baghdad, declared a cease-fire in September. These factors came together in the fall of 2007 to produce a sharp decline in violence.

Political progress and ethnic reconciliation were halting, though, fueling calls by Democrats to begin a withdrawal of American forces, though they lacked sufficient votes in Congress to force one. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, an early opponent of the war, rose to prominence in the Democratic race for the nomination in large part by capitalizing on the war's unpopularity. But by the time Mr. Obama defeated Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination in 2008 and then the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, Iraq hardly loomed as an issue as it once had, both because of the drop in violence there and because of the rising economic turmoil in the United States and later the world.

BUSH REACHES AN AGREEMENT

At the end of 2007, Mr. Bush and General Petraeus had succeeded in maintaining the level of American forces in Iraq above what it was before the "surge" began. Mr. Maliki's government, increasingly confident of its growing military might, expanded operations against insurgents and other militants that had once been the exclusive fight of the Americans. The militias loyal to Mr. Sadr, who had gone into exile, were routed in a government-led offensive in southern Iraq, though significant assistance from American forces and firepower was needed for the Iraqis to succeed. By May, the offensive extended to Sadr City in Baghdad, a densely populated neighborhood that had been largely outside of the government's control.

American and Iraqi officials spent most of 2008 negotiating a new security agreement to replace the United Nations mandate authorizing the presence of foreign troops. Negotiations proceeded haltingly for months, but Mr. Bush, who for years railed against those calling for timetables for withdrawal, agreed in July 2008 to a "general time horizon." That ultimately became a firm pledge to remove all American combat forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and from the whole country by 2011. He also agreed to give Iraq significant control over combat operations, detentions of prisoners and even prosecutions of American soldiers for grave crimes, though with enough caveats to make charges unlikely.

PLANS FOR WITHDRAWAL

The American military returned control of military operations to Iraq's military and police on Jan. 1, 2009. The American combat mission — Operation Iraqi Freedom, in the Pentagon's argot — officially ended on Aug. 31, 2010.

President Obama marked the date with a prime-time address from the Oval Office, saying that the United States had met its responsibility to Iraq and that it was time to turn to pressing problems at home.

The mission's name changed from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, and the 50,000 remaining transitional troops will leave by the end of 2011.

At the end of June 2009, also in keeping with the security agreement, the vast majority of American troops withdrew from Iraq's cities, garrisoning themselves on vast bases outside. Mr. Maliki declared June 30 a national holiday, positioning himself as a proud leader who ended the foreign occupation of Iraq. But Mr. Maliki's fanfare about ending the occupation rang hollow for Iraqis who feared that their country's security forces were not yet ready to stand alone. A series of catastrophic attacks in August, October, December and January 2010 - striking government ministries, universities, hotels - only heightened anxiety and suspicion among Iraqis.

THE 2010 ELECTION

Iraq’s latest parliamentary election was originally scheduled for December 2009, but was delayed for months by political bickering. A fight over the election rules prompted a veto by one of Iraq's two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, who said Sunni Arabs inside and outside the country faced disadvantages. Then in January a parliamentary commission with disputed legal standing disqualified more than 500 candidates on the grounds they were former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party or remained sympathetic to it.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, hoping to build on his success in the 2009 provincial elections, sought to form a broader, cross-sectarian coalition that would include Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. Other parties followed suit, appealing for “national unity” in a country where it has rarely before existed, and only then a unity ruled by an iron hand.

They faced a formidable challenge from a coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who served as interim prime minister before the 2005 elections. Mr. Allawi’s alliance, called Iraqiya, drew broader support across the country’s sectarian lines, attracting Mr. Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker who was the most prominent candidate barred from running in March’s election.

The pre-election turmoil unfolded against a backdrop of violence and intimidation, and a steady withdrawal of American troops. On Feb. 12, 2010, the Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent group that now includes the remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, vowed to disrupt the elections. While the level of violence plunged from the shocking carnage of 2006 and 2007, suicide bombers continued to attack, seemingly at will, plunging Baghdad into chaos on a regular basis and undercutting Mr. Maliki's claims to have restored security. Political disputes between Arabs and Kurds in the north continued to fester, prompting the Americans to intervene. Mr. Maliki's use of the military and security forces to settle political disputes also raised alarms, and put the Americans in the awkward middle.

Election Day on March 7 was marked by violence that left at least 38 dead, but that did not dissuade voters from turning out in large numbers. The vote counting process proved to be more chaotic than expected, with accusations of fraud by leading parties, divisions among highly politicized electoral officials and chaos in disclosing the results.

The initial results showed the coalition led by Mr. Allawi taking a slim lead over the slate of Mr. Maliki. Mr. Allawi, although himself a Shiite, benefited from a surge in voting by Sunnis, many of whom boycotted earlier elections.

Mr. Maliki vigorously challenged the results, but Mr. Allawi's narrow lead survived a recount. Mr. Maliki also forged an alliance between his coalition and the other major Shiite bloc, a move that cleared the way for a Shiite-dominated government for the next four years. Together they were only four votes short of a majority, leading many in Iraq to expect that a deal could be reached with Kurdish parties, once the Kurds extract new promises of expanded autonomy.

But as weeks dragged on, the Shiite alliance had not agreed on a candidate for prime minister, as many of its members strongly oppose giving Mr. Maliki a second term. The leader of one Shiite faction, Moktada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric, even met with Mr. Allawi in an apparent effort to increase pressure on Mr. Maliki to step aside. American efforts to have the two men share power also failed to resolve the issue.

But on October 1 it was announced that Mr. Maliki’s party, State of Law, and another Shiite party with ties to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr shut out a third, the Iraqi National Alliance, and its contender, Adel Abdelmehdi, in negotiations within the Shiite bloc.

The Kurds, with 57 seats in the new 325-member Parliament, emerged as powerbrokers in the final talks, throwing their support behind Mr. Maliki in exchange for holding onto the presidency.

The Obama administration had for months urged Iraq’s quarreling factions to create a government that included all major ethnic and sectarian groups, lest the country descend into the chaos that consumed it in the worst years after the invasion of 2003.

Under the new pact, the county’s current president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, would remain as president, solidifying the role of Iraq’s Kurds. The new government that will oversee the withdrawal of American troops will look much like the one that has governed in the past four tumultuous years. But Mr. Allawi’s role in the new government remained to be defined.

Mr. Maliki was formally granted a second term on Dec. 21, when Parliament unanimously voted to accept the cabinet he had painstakingly assembled.

THE DRAWDOWN

The protracted election turmoil, and the strengthened position of the fiercely anti-American Mr. Sadr, cast new doubt on establishing any enduring American military role in Iraq after the last of nearly 50,000 troops withdraw in the next 12 months. Given Iraq’s military shortcomings, especially in air power, intelligence coordination and logistics, American and Iraqi officials had long expected that some American military presence, even if only in an advisory role, would continue beyond 2011.

The November agreement by Mr. Allawi's party to join a unity government was a significant victory for Mr. Maliki, who has proven a forceful and wily politician, unwavering in his determination to remain in office. How Mr. Maliki can now manage the unwieldy alliance is a big question. Rivalries among the various factions, including a bitter historical opposition between Mr. Maliki and Mr. Sadr, remain barely below the surface.

The long stalemate cast a shadow over the drawdown that brought the American force in Iraq to about 50,000 troops by August 31, down from 144,000 when Mr. Obama took office. The remaining “advise and assist” brigades will officially focus on supporting and training Iraqi security forces, protecting American personnel and facilities, and mounting counterterrorism operations. The 50,000 transitional troops will leave by the end of 2011, according to an agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush and reaffirmed by Mr. Obama.

The drawdown of American combat forces represents a significant milestone after the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, touched off waves of sectarian strife and claimed the lives of more than 4,400 American soldiers and more than 70,000 Iraqis, according to the United States and Iraqi government figures. Yet the date largely went unnoticed by Iraqis.

The withdrawal also is a feat of logistics that has been called the biggest movement of military matériel since World War II. But it is also an exercise in semantics: What soldiers today would call combat operations - hunting insurgents, joint raids between Iraqi security forces and United States Special Forces to kill or arrest militants - will continue but be called "stability operations." The Obama administration is planning a remarkable civilian effort, buttressed by a small army of contractors, to fill the void. By October 2011, the State Department will assume responsibility for training the Iraqi police, a task that will largely be carried out by contractors.

THE ENDGAME

The departure of the bulk of American forces in 2010 does not mean an end to the country's involvement in Iraq. But the tiny military presence under the Obama administration's plan — limited to several dozen to several hundred officers in an embassy office who would help the Iraqis purchase and field new American military equipment — and the civilians' growing portfolio have led some veteran Iraq hands to suggest that thousands of additional troops will be needed after 2011.

The array of tasks for which American troops are likely to be needed, military experts and some Iraqi officials say, include training Iraqi forces to operate and logistically support new M-1 tanks, artillery and F-16s they intend to acquire from the Americans; protecting Iraq's airspace until the country can rebuild its air force; and perhaps assisting Iraq's special operations units in carrying out counterterrorism operations.

Such an arrangement would need to be negotiated with Iraqi officials, who insisted on the 2011 deadline in the agreement with the Bush administration for removing American forces. With the Obama administration in campaign mode for the coming midterm elections and Iraqi politicians yet to form a government, the question of what future military presence might be needed has been all but banished from public discussion.

By October 2011, the State Department will assume responsibility for training the Iraqi police, a task that will largely be carried out by contractors. With no American soldiers to defuse sectarian tensions in northern Iraq, it will be up to American diplomats in two new $100 million outposts to head off potential confrontations between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish pesh merga forces.

To protect the civilians in a country that is still home to insurgents with Al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias, the State Department is planning to more than double its private security guards, up to as many as 7,000, according to administration officials who disclosed new details of the plan. Defending five fortified compounds across the country, the security contractors would operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress, the officials said.

<The New York Times>,2011/02/25