The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq's urban areas is a critical test of the institutions set up in the past six years
"Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems" and "an end to occupation" -- well-worn phrases favored by all sides. Stakeholders in Iraq will be suddenly tested by the withdrawal of US troops from urban areas. The date is a huge occasion for the nascent Iraqi state: it will test the durability of the institutions that have emerged from the embers of the almost total state collapse of 2003-04.
Both Iraqi and US officials warned of increasing rates of violence as the deadline for withdrawal approached and they were not wrong: a series of bombings around the country has killed hundreds. Sixty-seven per cent of the Iraqi population lives in urban areas and much of the conflict of the past six years has been focused within cities, in contrast to the rural outfighting in Afghanistan.
Yet the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has ignored calls to delay the withdrawal in certain parts of the country. He has a huge amount of political capital to gain from being the Iraqi leader who ended the occupation of Iraq -- indeed, Maliki stoked US anger by telling Le Monde that Iraq was about to successfully "repulse" the invaders.
However, questions remain as to Maliki's nationalist credentials. Last week Col Burt Thompson, who oversees Diyala province, told USA Today that Maliki was transferring senior Sunni officers and not paying thousands of members of the Awakening movement:
Prime Minister al-Maliki wants to stay in power... Diyala was [Shia]. It went Sunni. Do you think they're going to let it stay that way? I don't think so.
While the "surge" created great improvements, the political space that a drop in violence was supposed to have created has not been exploited by a largely impotent Iraqi parliament -- the poor incorporation of the Sunni militias is just one example among many. These political issues remain unaddressed and with the U.S. military out of the cities, concerns are that a facade of national unity may disintegrate into a complex ethno-sectarian conflict.
Mosul remains a city divided and the potential epicentre of future conflict. The Times correspondent Anthony Loyd spoke recently to US troops who warned that the Iraqi military were likely to be brutal in any clampdown. Meanwhile the LA Times reported that the Kurds were refusing to accept the authority of the region's new Arab governor, Atheel Najafi, unless they gain positions in Mosul's city council, which is currently controlled by Najafi's Hadba coalition. Najafi was warned away by the Kurdish peshmerga from visiting areas under their control, evidence of the levels of internal demarcation present in the new Iraq.
Kurdish-Arab tensions have grown steadily worse as Baghdad has become more assertive within a federal process in which exact sovereignties and territorial demarcations remain disputed. The failure to settle the issue of Kirkuk, in particular, will test the Iraqi body politic to its limits. The question is likely to be a major issue in the run-up to the Kurdish presidential and parliamentary elections on July 25.
On top of this ethno-sectarian conflict is the wildcard presence of al-Qaida-affiliated groups linked to several attacks on Shia marketplaces in Baghdad. Despite the US military telling their Iraqi counterparts that their force numbers would remain steady until the autumn and that they were only a "phone call" away, it would take a significant uptick in violence for Maliki to countenance the loss of face that would come from asking for high-profile US support.
Important tactical questions also remain as to the exact role of US special forces within this new security environment, in addition to the capacity and exact force posture of the Iraqi military and police, who have been criticized in the past for a checkpoint-centric approach not based around the "active patrolling" and population-focused surge strategy the US pursued.
As ever in Iraq, uncertainty is the only certainty. Maliki is right to treat the US withdrawal as a celebration, and the poignancy of it happening on the anniversary of the British withdrawal in 1920 is not lost. Tensions will be high as the institutions of the Iraqi state take the next step towards an elusive sovereignty.