“That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.” – President Obama
The administration announced Friday that all U.S. combat forces will be out of Iraq by year-end, leaving in place a security contingent of several hundred troops to protect U.S. embassy personal. “As promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” President Obama announced. “Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home.”
Obama emphasized that relations between the United States and Iraq will move into “a new phase” and assume a “normal relationship between sovereign nations. An equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” The removal of all U.S. troops officially ends the Iraq War that began in 2003. From a high of 160,000 troops in 2008 during the height of sectarian strife to a low of 50,000 in 2010, the war has cost the U.S. nearly $1 trillion, and roughly 4,500 U.S. military personal have been killed and over 20,000 wounded.
The U.S. leaves Iraq having achieved one of its stated objectives, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power with his subsequent death in 2006 at the hands of fellow Iraqis. While daily occurrences of violence have been reduced sharply, U.S. troop fatalities are still a monthly occurrence, with two U.S. military personal killed in October in support of “Operation New Dawn.”
And while some senior Iraqis expressed a desire for some U.S. troops to stay on past December 2011, the failure to reach an agreement between the U.S. and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government pushed the Obama administration into announcing the complete removal of all U.S. troops. The sticking point during negotiations for thousands of U.S. troops to remain past Dec. 31 was a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would have shielded American personal from prosecution by Iraqi courts.
The U.S., and especially Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, had wanted immunity in place for all U.S. personal if they were to remain to train Iraqi security forces and provide ancillary support during military operations. Further, the Obama administration made clear to the Maliki government that it was prepared to leave several thousand troops past Dec. 31 in the event of further sectarian violence and concern over Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s affairs. However, internal divisions within Iraq’s parliament and Maliki’s coalition government, and in particular opposition from Muqtada al-Sadr, ultimately derailed the negotiations and made any agreement next to impossible.
If things fall apart in Iraq after U.S. troops leave, it will be interesting to observe Washington’s next move. Is the administration prepared to swing into action and send troops back in to support the relatively weak Maliki government? Or, is the Obama administration prepared to let the Iraqis sort their own internal affairs?