As U.S. forces pull out of Iraq's urban areas, everyone is waiting with bated breath for the results. Will there be a surge in violence, ending the relative peace that many Iraqis have enjoyed for the past year? Will al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) rear its head once more? Will the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seize the chance to impose a more autocratic regime?
Although all these questions are real, the crucial moment is not this Tuesday's withdrawal. The real test for Iraq will come far later — and it will be less about the baby steps of U.S. troop withdrawal and more about whether the country can solve its myriad political debates.
It's easy to overstate the importance of the June 30 troop withdrawal. U.S. forces are leaving areas that they entered before and especially during the surge. This concerns mostly Baghdad, where the insertion of U.S. troops at the neighborhood level helped end the 2005-2007 civil war and froze into place the de facto rule of the country's Shiite Islamist-led government — at the expense of the Sunni Arab population, a good part of which fled. Iraqi state security forces now control the capital with little opposition. Although bombs do continue to go off, attacks are a distant and infrequent reality for most of this enormous city's inhabitants. A U.S. withdrawal is unlikely to change the situation dramatically.
Cities with fewer U.S. troops are likely to be affected even less by the pullout. In the south, local security forces have been in control of urban areas for some time, with varying degrees of success. Problematic cities, such as Mosul and Baquba, will remain violent regardless of whether the few U.S. troops there stay or go. An interesting exception may be towns in Anbar province such as Falluja, once a hotbed of insurgency. Here, a dormant AQI might seek to exploit the security vacuum, playing on the frustrations of former rebels who joined the now famous "Sunni Awakening" to put down the insurgency, but have yet to be integrated into the new state.
There are still more ways in which the withdrawal is less than some make it out to be: "Urban areas" have been redefined as city centers, meaning that U.S. forces will remain close at hand should anything go wrong. And U.S. military advisors, riding in repainted vehicles, will continue to provide essential support to Iraqi forces patrolling the cities.
The real turning points over the coming months will be the country's parliamentary elections in January and the comprehensive withdrawal of U.S. troops by August 2010. Maliki is gearing up for January, when his party faces a tough battle at the polls against a crowded field. Should violence increase as the United States scales back, his law-and-order platform will lose its luster and his prospects for another term may fade. There might well be increased levels of violence in the run-up to the elections, as well as political challenges from Maliki's opponents who could try to weaken him such that he can no longer effectively govern. If he succeeds in keeping things more or less under control, however, Maliki will be able to boost his electoral hopes by portraying himself as the man who restored both Iraq's security and sovereignty.
But the August 2010 departure of all U.S. combat troops could be the most pivotal event. U.S. forces have kept Iraq's fractured political class stable enough to talk rather than fight. Because negotiations have delivered very little in the way of compromises on key issues — how power, resources, and territory are divided or shared — a U.S. pullout could well lead to conflict. Preventing that fate might require the Obama administration to make good on its pledge to facilitate a "responsible" withdrawal while lending strong diplomatic muscle to U.N.-led efforts to mediate a new set of political agreements. No Iraqi politician will compromise on hot-button questions such as federalism, an oil law, and the status of Kirkuk in an election year, but much could be done in the coming months to lay the groundwork for a deal set to be concluded following the elections but ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.
Much could go wrong, and much probably will. The warning signs will include flawed elections, an end to political negotiations, a return to sectarian fighting in Baghdad, and a renewed refugee flow. Or Iraqis could manage to keep talking and somehow muddle through. Either way, this week's much-ballyhooed deadline won't decide much of anything.