US retreat from Iraq "leaves bitter taste"

Some soldiers come home, but 50,000 have to stay Keystone

Iraq has won its sovereignty as the United States formally ended combat operations there, but a political expert tells swissinfo.ch challenges still lie ahead.

This content was published on September 1, 2010 - 08:45

Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, warns of the frailty and the ambiguities of this transition.

President Barack Obama kept a promise but took a risk on Tuesday in boldly declaring an end to more than seven years of war in Iraq and asserting that the US had turned the page both at home and abroad on the costly, divisive conflict.

In relatively brief but politically loaded remarks from the Oval Office, Obama took pains to thank troops for their sacrifice but made clear he saw the moment more as a mistake ended than a mission accomplished. He spoke of strained relations with allies, anger at home and a "huge price" of the highest order.

The toll includes more than 4,400 US troops dead and many more Iraqis, tens of thousands more Americans wounded and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

The roughly 50,000 US soldiers still in Iraq are to take up a new role in which they will “advise and support” Iraq's army and police.

Barack Obama has promised a full withdrawal of US troops by 2011.

swissinfo.ch: What does this announcement by Barack Obama mean? Does it entail real changes on the ground?

Hasni Abidi: President Obama is keeping the engagement he took at the beginning of his mandate.

His administration has come to the conclusion that extending its presence in Iraq would not really change political order, as the country is no longer a threat to US security. Afghanistan has become a priority.

Having said that, the US is maintaining important military bases as well as 50,000 soldiers on site, which is about a quarter of the Iraqi numbers. They are there to – officially – give advice and support to the Iraqi army. In reality, they will no doubt continue to take part in combat operations.

swissinfo.ch: Do the Iraqi parties have the means and the will to get on with one another or are the risks of a split still great?

H.A.: From this point of view, Obama’s announcement can be seen as a bit tactless, since the Iraqi government, which is supposed to manage this transition, does not have the legitimacy to do so.

Five months after the elections, there is still no new government and the negotiations between the different factions are at a standstill.

The pull-out from Iraq is a victory, because Iraq is regaining its independence. But it leaves a bitter taste.

swissinfo.ch: Do Iraqi politicians have the desire to take control of the country’s destiny?

H.A.: Some people think that the Iraqis never managed to form a government while the Americans were present.

The population is more and more disappointed and is starting to lose its patience and trust in democracy, whereas elections have always gone off well.

We can only hope that the US withdrawal will be an incentive for Iraqi political forces to pull themselves together and take hold of their destiny. But it’s a risky bet. Only the US was able to influence Iraq’s main forces, whether it be Kurds, Shi'ites, or Sunnis, to avoid the break-up of the country – which remains a real possibility.

Evidence for this is that the government of Iraqi Kurdistan is currently signing agreements with foreign companies for petrol and gas exploitation, against Baghdad’s will.

swissinfo.ch: Is the Iraqi economy developing? Are there any signs of an Iraqi middle class?

H.A.: The US banked a lot on the development of entrepreneurship in Iraq. But considering the security conditions and the instability of power, the creation of a real economy in Iraq – apart from hydrocarbons – is not yet on the cards.

Having said that, the lifestyle of some Iraqis at least has improved notably. But the state remains almost the only job supplier. The unemployment rate is therefore still very high with a significant brain drain.

swissinfo.ch: Has democratisation after the fall of Saddam Hussein enabled the development of a civil society?

H.A.: There is an outline of democracy in Iraq, it is undeniable. Iraq has adopted a very pluralistic constitution with quotas on religious minorities and women’s representation, for example. It is quite unique in the Arab world.

Civil society exists, for sure, just like the attempt to ensure an independent justice system, which would penalise “endemic” corruption in the country.

The elections of 2005 and 2010 showed a great degree of political maturity by the Iraqi population. But there is a total discrepancy between the people’s democratic aspirations and the main political forces, which are extremely dogmatic and close to their mentors from Iran, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.

Frédéric Burnand, swissinfo.ch (Translated from French by Emily Wright)

Switzerland and Iraq

The British mandate in Iraq came to an end in 1930. Switzerland gave the new state de facto recognition in the same year when the government received King Faisal I in Bern. The US represented Swiss interests in Iraq from 1914.

Switzerland opened a consulate in Baghdad in 1936, upgrading it to a legation in 1955. Between 1939 and 1945 Switzerland represented German interests in Iraq, and those of Iraq in the Axis powers and the territories occupied by them.

Switzerland also represented French interests in Iraq between 1956 and 1963, and Iraq’s interests in Germany between 1965 and 1970.

Iraq constituted itself as a republic in 1958, thus giving Swiss companies access to a market that had previously been controlled by Britain. Economic relations became closer.

The First Gulf War in 1991 led to the closure of the Swiss embassy and the departure of numerous Swiss nationals living in Iraq. Trade between the two countries collapsed in consequence of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Switzerland has been providing humanitarian aid since 1993.

In November 2000 Switzerland opened a diplomatic liaison office in Baghdad to safeguard its interests. Bilateral relations became closer after the Iraq war in 2003. Switzerland continues to provide humanitarian aid. It is also helping Iraq with the training of administrative cadres, for example in the fields of human rights, international negotiations and international organisations.

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