Anxiety in Iraq Follows Announced US Withdrawal

An Mi-171 helicopter pilot walks down a flight line prior to a mission at Taji Air Base, Iraq, July 15, 2009

An Mi-171 helicopter pilot walks down a flight line prior to a mission at Taji Air Base, Iraq, July 15, 2009 (USAF/Michael B. Keller)

As a blogger on the Iraq War, I am out of a job. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find serious news articles on the topic. Does this surprise me? No, not particularly. The Middle East is overtaken as a region by turmoil of all kinds, evident when you click the “Middle East” link on any major news website. Not to mention that the United States would rather forget about their political blunder — and it appears that the rest of the world might let them. For now.

The future drawdown of American forces in Iraq has led to a small amount of media coverage. “Ṣadrists” (those backing Muqtadā al-Ṣadr, an Iraqi Shia leader) are ecstatic. Al Jazeera reports that al-Ṣadr has called for suspending attacks against America’s troops, saying that they’ll only resume the violence if the country does not leave on schedule.

On the other side, the Kurdish community wants the US military to stay, as Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish provinces in Iraq, requested in order to guard against a potential increase in sectarian violence.

US Chief of Staff and Army General Ray Odierno feels that leaving a large amount of troops behind might incite more problems, including continued allegations of occupation against the United States. He told CNN that “there comes a time” when a formidable American troop presence in Iraq “becomes counterproductive.” He has not come out in favor of even leaving three to five thousand behind, an option that is reportedly being considered by the Obama Administration.

The most newsworthy development on the heels of the drawdown, however, appears to be the death of radio talk show host Hadi al-Mahdi. Being detained and beaten for criticizing the Iraqi government didn’t stop al-Mahdi from preparing for a protest scheduled in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square last Friday. In the preceding days, he posted comments on his Facebook page about threats along with warnings that someone might try to kill him. On Thursday, he was found dead in his home, shot twice in the head.

Who killed the radio host is unclear but many Iraqi citizens are now wondering exactly what is in store for them when the American troops pull out. Samer Muscati, director of Iraq research for Human Rights Watch, was quoted in The Washington Post saying, “I think Iraq is at a crossroads, with the Americans leaving. The signs of authoritarianism are quite disturbing.”

Despite their concerns, hundreds of Iraqis marched on Friday from al-Mahdi’s home in central Baghdad to Tahrir Square with a symbolic coffin draped in an Iraqi flag. Protests were held in other Iraqi cities, including Basra, where people held signs and chanted slogans accusing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government of corruption.

After finding this story, buried deep beneath the articles about the Libyan rebels and Egypt’s and Syria’s protestors, I’m left wondering if Saddam Hussein would have been overthrown if history had played itself out (sans US invasion).

If the “Arab Spring” has taught us one thing, it is that even the cruelest regimes in the region cannot escape their own citizens. Although this is a deeply depressing hypothetical road to travel down — Iraq and the United States would not have lost so many people while Washington’s international reputation might not have taken a severe downturn — we should consider these protests as a glimpse of the possibilities that are now available to the Iraqi people.

Obviously, this is an extremely difficult situation without an easy solution — if there is a solution. Not only are the Iraqi people concerned about sectarian violence between each other; they’re now afraid of the developing authoritarian regime in Baghdad. Unfortunately, there’s no going back. Even if US troops stayed for another eight years, this situation might be inevitable. But if Iraqis can come together peacefully to protest, it gives us hope that they will continue to fight for the basic rights and privileges afforded them as citizens.