Challenges, Changes In Iraq After Troop Withdrawal

The end of June marked a major milestone for U.S. involvement in Iraq as American combat troops pulled out of Iraqi cities. Now, a month later, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, offers an on-the-ground look at what Iraq is really like post-withdrawal.

Shiite Muslim pilgrims commemorate the death of the seventh imam. i i

Shiite Muslim pilgrims converged on Baghdad to commemorate the death of the seventh imam, Musa al-Kadhim, on July 18. The lack of major violence at the festival marked a public relations victory for the Iraqi government. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Shiite Muslim pilgrims commemorate the death of the seventh imam.

Shiite Muslim pilgrims converged on Baghdad to commemorate the death of the seventh imam, Musa al-Kadhim, on July 18. The lack of major violence at the festival marked a public relations victory for the Iraqi government.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

It's been a month now since U.S. combat troops officially withdrew from Iraqi cities, under a security pact between the two countries. How has everyday life in the cities changed since then?

The change is undeniable. Many fewer American convoys, a daily irritant as they stopped Iraqi traffic with their guns drawing a bead on drivers, every car a potential suicide attacker. No more waking up to the windows rattling as an American helicopter buzzed low over the city, always followed seconds later by a second of the pair, to be repeated at least a half-dozen times each day. The Iraqi government also opened up a few main traffic arteries that had been blocked for years by American bases. That's the most noticeable difference.

Some troops have remained to serve in training and advisory roles, and you've reported that Iraqis have complained when they see American troops still around. How obvious is the U.S. presence now?

When Iraqis see an American patrol now, they play a quick game of "I Spy" with each other, looking for the Iraqi escort — a police or Iraqi Army vehicle that should be at the tail end of each convoy. If they don't see the escort, they likely complain to their government or news media. Iraqis used to fear getting too close to American trucks and Humvees on the highway, now sometimes they make a point of overtaking the convoy just to enjoy watching the Americans make way.

Have you talked to any of the soldiers remaining in advisory roles? How do they feel about their mission?

For the advisers sticking behind, they say their work hasn't changed at all, though it's now even more difficult for them to get around the city — they're trying to make their moves at night when fewer Iraqis will see them and complain. Iraqi and American officials acknowledge that not everyone understands that some American troops are still legitimately here in Baghdad, so they want to keep their visibility at a minimum.

Troops who remain in a combat role can see serious problems on the horizon: This month an American patrol was hit with a grenade attack near the city of Abu Ghraib. They returned fire, killing two attackers, but also a 14-year-old bystander. Iraqi soldiers then tried to arrest the Americans! Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki eventually apologized and reiterated the Americans' right to self-defense, but it's not clear that either side is fully aware or on board for the rules of the security agreement.

More problems are bound to arise, and it's a hard fact for U.S. soldiers to accept that despite all their sacrifice, they are not loved here and may never be as long as they're on Iraqi soil.

Do the Iraqis you talk to feel more or less safe, or the same, since the urban withdrawal? Has the level of violence changed?

The level of violence is roughly the same — drastically reduced from the bad days of 2005-07, but still unacceptable to any country not at war. Most Iraqis say they feel safer — they think that the American military attracted and inspired attacks in the neighborhoods. An alarming number of Iraqis sincerely believe that the American military was actually planting the bombs and faking the attacks as an excuse to maintain an occupation in Iraq.

What about outside the cities — have there been changes for the Iraqis and U.S. troops there?

Not really. The bases at the edge of urban centers are still on call to enter the cities if Iraqi troops call them. It may have escaped notice that a dozen of Iraq's 18 provinces have been largely peaceful for some time now. The lingering problems are in Baghdad, Mosul and the hills of northeastern Diyala. The multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk is still a potential detonator for a conflict between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans that could draw in neighboring Turkey and Iran. So U.S. troops are concentrating there and largely absent in much of the country.

Have Iraqis' perceptions of their government been influenced by the withdrawal? How do you think this will play into the January elections?

The Iraqi government scored a big public relations victory two weeks after the withdrawal when millions of Shiite pilgrims arrived in Baghdad for a major festival. The marching hoards shut the city down, but unlike in the past, Sunni extremist groups were unable to carry out any mass casualty attacks. Prime Minister Maliki is reaping plenty of credit for holding firm on Iraq's demands that the U.S. begin to pull out, and he's clearly got an eye on re-election in January.

Aren't the Iraqi people supposed to vote on the security pact? What's the latest on the referendum?

As with many of Iraq's thorniest problems, that can is being kicked down the road. The joke in Baghdad is that by the time the Iraqi people get to vote whether they approve it, the security agreement will have already expired in 2012.

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