Seven years after the U.S. embarked on its war in Iraq with “shock and awe”, the military ends its combat operations on Tuesday with considerably less fanfare. President Obama will make the announcement in a televised address from the White House.
On March 20, 2003, suddenly, with no advance notice, every major radio and television channel across the United States interrupted its programming to transmit a recorded message direct from the White House.
"My fellow citizens,” former US President George Bush began in an uncharacteristically sombre tone, “at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq…” And with those words, the United States confidently embarked on a 2,721-day odyssey that now ends almost as it began, with another TV address from the Oval Office Tuesday. This time, though, a different president will deliver a far more humble message.
Gone will be the bravado of “shock and awe", President Barack Obama will likely acknowledge the thousands of Americans who died fighting in Iraq and many more who returned maimed from a war that most Americans would rather now forget.
Another risky Oval Office address
In his presidential campaign, Obama promised to end the war in Iraq and bring US soldiers home. For Obama, Tuesday’s speech to declare the formal end of combat operations in Iraq can be seen as a fulfilment of that promise. However, 50,000 US troops are set to remain in Iraq in a non-combatant capacity.
Although public opinion is solidly behind the president’s withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Obama’s strategy is fraught with risks.
Hours before Obama's speech, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned it was too early for victory parades in Iraq.
"I am not saying that all is, or will necessarily be, well in Iraq," Gates said in a speech in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin.
Meanwhile Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the end of American combat operations in a televised address on Tuesday, stressing that Iraq's own soldiers and police were capable of defending a "sovereign and independent" country.
Months after the March 7 parliamentary elections in Iraq, the government in Baghdad is still bitterly divided and effectively paralysed. Neither of the country’s main religious-backed political parties won a clear mandate, creating a dangerous political impasse that threatens to further destabilise the country.
On Monday, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi again reiterated that his Sunni-backed Iraqiya party will not form a coalition government with their rival Shiite al-Dawa party led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Despite intensive lobbying efforts from the Syrian, Lebanese and US governments among others, neither of the two Iraqi leaders is showing any signs of compromise.
With Baghdad’s political stability in limbo and a violent insurgency that continues to prey on civilians, Obama is taking a considerable gamble that his decision to end combat operations in Iraq will not spark an all-out war among the country's feuding political, religious and insurgent groups.
'They are going to be fine…'
US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad late Monday to oversee the change-of-command ceremony that will take place on Wednesday. The event will mark the official debut of “Operation New Dawn” and the end of America’s pre-eminence in Iraq. President Obama will announce the end of combat operations in Washington on Tuesday evening in a televised address to the nation.
US forces will no longer be permitted to unilaterally go on combat missions without the explicit consent of the Iraqi military; this raises additional questions as to whether the Iraqi military is sufficiently trained, unified and prepared to cope with the country’s mounting security needs. A number of American analysts, both liberal and conservative, openly worry that if the Iraqi military fails and the security situation deteriorates, the US military could once again be on its way back to Baghdad.
In the meantime, Biden and other US officials are expressing optimism. “We are going to be just fine; they are going to be just fine,” the Vice President told reporters in Baghdad on Monday. Whether this is just more American hubris or informed opinion remains to be seen, but with so much at stake for both the US and Iraq, optimism may just be their last resort.