Foreign Policy: Welcome to the Shadow War The announcement that the U.S. would leave Iraq was met with relief for many. But Foreign Policy's Michael Knight explains why the pullout of U.S. forces in Iraq threatens to unleash a dangerous and deadly struggle with Iran and within the Iraqi army.

Foreign Policy: Welcome to the Shadow War

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the V-sign for victory as he waits for the arrival of Qatari Minister of State for International Cooperation Khaled bin Mohammed al-Attiyah in Tehran on Oct. 13, 2011.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the V-sign for victory as he waits for the arrival of Qatari Minister of State for International Cooperation Khaled bin Mohammed al-Attiyah in Tehran on Oct. 13, 2011.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Knights is a Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of The Iraqi Security Forces: Local Context and U.S. Assistance.

"The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq — with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops," President Barack Obama announced last week. "That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."

But the American departure marks the beginning, not the end, of the struggle facing the Iraqi Army. Iraq's military remains divided by conflicts between its traditional, nationalist officer corps and Iran-sponsored interlopers, and paralyzed by the dysfunctional politics in Baghdad and the withdrawal of U.S. military support. If Iraq is to develop into a strong and secure nation, capable of guiding its own affairs, much depends on its army's ability to overcome these hurdles.

I recently spent a period of three weeks embedded with Iraqi Army headquarters in the south of Iraq Though one has to be careful drawing conclusions about this large, varied country from observations gathered in any one of its regions, the view from southern Iraq is particularly relevant at this time. The south is Iran's backyard — the part of Iraq where Tehran's ambitions are focused due to its political, religious, and economic connections to the predominately Shiite population, and where its influence is most keenly felt. Iraqi Army headquarters in the south have also been operating largely autonomously of U.S. or British support since foreign troops drew down to low levels in 2009 — making them a window into the future of the Iraqi military after the U.S. exit.

Obama's announcement may have marked a milestone for many Americans, but in the view of Iraqi security leaders, the United States has been gone for a long time in much of the country. The die was cast as soon as the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement — in effect, the U.S. withdrawal timetable — was ratified by the Iraqi cabinet on Nov. 16, 2008. From that date onward, it became increasingly difficult for both U.S. and Iraqi forces to arrest, detain, or prosecute Iraqi suspects because only Iraqi warrants carried legal weight. Though U.S. forces have gradually drawn down, their physical presence on their bases has meant less and less to Iraqis because U.S. capability to influence security on the ground had been legally and politically neutered.

The slow fade-out of the U.S. presence has left Iraqi Army leaders exposed to political attacks. Numerous interviews with Iraqi officers paint a picture of the shadow war being fought within the Iraqi security sector on the eve of U.S. departure. On one side is the class of Shiite Arab political appointees seeded throughout the security establishment since the ascendance of a predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad . Many of these individuals were members of Badr Corps, the agency formed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to pit exiled Iraqi Shiites against Saddam Hussein's military. Others are current supporters of Shiite hardline politician Moqtada al-Sadr, or breakaways from his movement. These groups oppose any U.S. influence over the Iraqi government and security sector, and support a clerical role in government similar to that practiced in Iran. Within their narrative, attacks against U.S. military targets are not considered criminal actions — they are only interested in pursuing former Baathists and al-Qaida terrorists.

The other side — currently beleaguered and perpetually looking over its shoulder — is the class of traditional Iraqi nationalists that still makes up a considerable portion of the Iraqi army leadership in the south. Many of today's generals fought at the tip of the spear in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War, as young lieutenants and majors. Due to their service in Saddam's military, these men can easily be targeted for investigation of suspected Baathist ties. Indeed, before the March 2010 elections, the so-called de-Baathification committee produced a list of over 70 senior officers, smearing them as alleged Baathists. These career officers deeply resent the presence of demaj (meaning "amalgamation") officers — political appointees from the Islamist parties who were given rank after 2003 without graduating from military academies. Due to the operational security problem posed by these newcomers, the veteran officers banded together, forming tight command groups comprised exclusively of their old war buddies — sidelining the demaj officers to less important jobs, and encouraging them to take extended periods of leave.

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