News Analysis: Hope for Iraqis rests on security forces after U.S. pullout 2009-07-21 01:30:34   Print

    By Matthew Rusling

    WASHINGTON, July 20 (Xinhua) -- With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq's cities and towns, the coming months will be a crucial test of whether Iraqi forces can maintain long-term security, experts said.

    U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the pullout as an important step toward full withdrawal by 2012, but warned that the country would see "difficult days" ahead.

    "The transition is further proof that those who have tried to pull Iraq into the abyss of disunion and civil war are on the wrong side of history," said Obama in a recent speech.

    U.S. troops began withdrawing on June 30 and transferring security duties to Iraqi forces. They are expected to remain outside urban areas and only intervene at Baghdad's request. The first test came over the weekend when the Iraqi forces handled security for a major religious event without U.S. support.

    Record numbers of Shi'ite Muslims, around 6 million, made pilgrimages to the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in Baghdad, the site of some of the bloodiest attacks since the onset of the war in 2003.

    Police and troops deployed heavily on the main routes across Baghdad while Army helicopters flew overhead.

    While the event was touted as a success, some violence occurred. Eight roadside explosive devices killed one man and wounded 40 others Friday, according to news reports.

    Despite this initial security victory, more challenges lie ahead. The most important of these is not only Iraqi forces' ability to maintain unit cohesion and avoid corruption, but their will to do so, as a lapse into sectarian strife among their ranks could cause considerable disruption, according to Stratfor, a private intelligence company.

    Also crucial is gaining the public's trust, as many Iraqis harbor deep suspicion of security forces' sectarian leanings. For them, the U.S. departure represents the disappearance of a watchdog against questionable Iraqi soldiers and police officers, experts said. Indeed, some Iraqis have accused local police of plotting recent violence against civilians, according to news reports.

    If they can overcome sectarian biases, however, Iraqi forces' chances for success -- and the country's chances for long-term stability -- are significant, the experts said. Still, their ability to do so remains unclear, Stratfor said.

    With national elections approaching in January, their success is crucial for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on security and the pullout of the U.S. forces. This weekend's events are an early sign that his bets may pay off.

    Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis at Stratfor, said the Iraqi forces have an edge over the U.S. forces -- they know the local language and landscape and can distinguish between Iraqis and foreign fighters.

    Jim Phillips, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said that while U.S. soldiers have other advantages -- including combat experience, leadership, morale, unit cohesion and air and artillery support -- the Iraqi forces are more capable than most insurgents.

    Still there are limits. Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said they need the U.S. troops to gather intelligence via unmanned aerial vehicles. But that is no great weakness, and the Iraqi forces have proven themselves in firefights, he said.

    Some units, however, are more prepared than others.

    Bokhari noted security contingents in some towns are just beginning to form. That is why the U.S. troops still linger in the outer rings of cities not covered by the withdrawal agreement.

    O'Hanlon said: "The best way to think of it is that we have pulled out of Manhattan but there are a number of Staten Islands we are still in."

    But in a show of independence, the Iraqi forces did not call on their U.S. counterparts in the first weeks since the handover, aside from requests for intelligence assistance, according to wire reports.

    Phillips, however, warns of a short-term spike in violence as the U.S. troops withdraw.

    Indeed, a recent spate of car bombs suggests al-Qaida in Iraq or other terrorists are trying to derail the handover and re-ignite sectarian strife, he said.

    Shortly before the U.S. withdrawal, violence increased sharply and killed 437 Iraqis, making June the bloodiest month in a year.

    Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki condemned the attacks as a bid to "undermine confidence in Iraq's own security forces."

    Some fear the violence could spark a return to the type of sectarian rivalries that ripped through the nation two years ago. Feeling targeted, one sect could lash out against another, experts said.

    But Bokhari said Iraqis are weary of violence -- a sentiment reflected in February when al-Maliki's Dawa party won provincial elections with a broad and nationalist message.

    While small-scale factional clashes are possible, they are unlikely to escalate into a full-blown civil war, as all groups have a stake in the political system, he said.

    O'Hanlon said low level suicide bombers could pose some risks, but any sizable conflict would originate in the upper echelons of government, and that is unlikely, he said.

    "That would only happen if top level leaders dropped the ball," he said.

Editor: Mu Xuequan
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