News / Middle East

    US Downsizing Operations in Iraq

    Cities hit by coordinated bombings and shootings on July 23, 2012 that killed more than 100 people.Cities hit by coordinated bombings and shootings on July 23, 2012 that killed more than 100 people.
    x
    Cities hit by coordinated bombings and shootings on July 23, 2012 that killed more than 100 people.
    Cities hit by coordinated bombings and shootings on July 23, 2012 that killed more than 100 people.
    From its sprawling, $750 million embassy in Baghdad - the largest, most expensive American diplomatic mission in the world - Washington had hoped for a cozy relationship with the Iraqi government, forged after a U.S.-led military coalition ousted former president Saddam Hussein.
     
    But in the seven months since the United States withdrew its combat forces from Iraq, U.S. relations with Baghdad have deteriorated as Iraqi insurgents have carried out a major attack at least once a month.
     
    Hundreds of people have been killed in the ongoing violence that included coordinated bombings and gunbattles on July 23 unleashed by Iraq's al-Qaida affiliate.
     
    This Year's Deadliest Attacks in Iraq

    • Jul. 23: Bombing and shootings in Baghdad and across the country kill 115 people
    • Jul. 3:  Bombing across Iraq kills 40 people
    • Jun. 13: Bombings across Iraq targeting Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims kill at least 72 people
    • Jun. 4: Car bomb in Baghdad kills 23
    • Apr. 19: A mix of car and roadside bombs kills 35 across Iraq
    • Mar. 20: At least 12 near-simultaneous explosions erupt across Iraq, killing 46, wounding more than 200
    •  Feb. 23: Attacks in Baghdad and 11 other cities kill 55 people
    • Jan. 27: Car bomb near a funeral procession in Baghdad kills 31 people
    As American influence in Iraq has ebbed to its lowest point in years, and with Iraq in political turmoil, the Obama administration recently announced large reductions to the size and scope of its mission in a country less willing to accept a significant American footprint.
     
    These include plans to slash the huge diplomatic presence it had envisioned for Iraq by one-third, drastically pare down a highly-touted but deeply unpopular police training program and close its consulate in Kirkuk.
     
    U.S. Cuts Iraq Funding
     
    Government experts warned U.S. lawmakers earlier this year that Iraq is questioning the continued presence of large numbers of Americans on its soil. A slimmed-down staff of 1,235 U.S. diplomats was present at the end of June, along with 12,477 employees of U.S.-funded contractors, most of whom were sent to guard and feed them.
     
    In May, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee reduced the Obama administration’s original $2.26 billion request for 2013 Iraq funding in half, to $1.1 billion.
     
    If approved, the biggest chunk of the reduction would eliminate $850 million for the Police Development Program, a key component of the U.S. civilian aid mission to Iraq, advertised as America's largest rebuilding project since the post-World War Two Marshall Plan.
     
    A critical report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, released last week, cited Iraqi "disinterest" in the program as the primary reason for cutting the number of in-country advisers by nearly 90 percent, from 350 to 36.
     
    The report said the American embassy in Baghdad never received a written commitment from Iraq to participate in the project and will close its $108 million Baghdad Police College Annex, turning it over to the Iraqis by the end of the year. Another $98 million was spent to construct a consulate in southern Iraq so it could be used for police training. But the Basra component ended "because the [Iraqi Interior Ministry] decided to terminate training at that location," it added.
     
    Iraq's deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Asadi, told U.S. inspectors in May the program was "useless" and that Iraqi police officers had indicated the training received was "not beneficial," the report said. 
     
    With Americans now largely confined to the Baghdad embassy because of safety concerns, investigators recently disclosed that "support costs and security expenses accounted for 93 percent of the estimated $4 billion [allocated for] 2012 operations in Iraq."

    U.S lawmakers say they are cautiously examining future investments in Iraq.

    U.S. Rep. John F. Tierney,  ranking U.S. House minority member of a Congressional subcommittee on foreign operations, said in June that he has “long expressed concern about the U.S. government’s significant footprint in Iraq.” He added that “the transition in Iraq and the taxpayer dollars that are being spent in that country” will be closely monitored.
     
    Ambivalent Relationship
     
    Representatives from across Iraq's political spectrum claim they want both independence from and a close relationship with the United States.
     
    "We need the Americans. We need to work together to reach the point when Iraq no longer needs help from anyone, including the U.S.," said Sami al-Askari, a Shi'ite lawmaker close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
     
    Independent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Osman added that "foreign countries" have exacerbated domestic conflicts, such as Baghdad's ongoing dispute with the Kurdish regional government over oil rights.
     
    Osman said Kurds should try to solve their own issues directly within Iraq and beware of depending too much on alliances with other nations, including the United States.
     
    "These countries have their own interests. Today they help you, they talk to you, then they leave you or sell you [out]. We've seen this in the past," Osman said. "So I hope the Kurdish leadership will try...to [conduct] a dialogue with other blocs [and] with the government here, as long as we are part of Iraq, anyway," he said.
     
    Baghdad resident Sadun Salam says "the U.S. withdrawal was a mistake because rebuilding and [fostering] democracy would have needed an American military presence."
     
    Another Baghdad resident, Huda Ahmed, credited Washington for ousting Saddam Hussein, but said Iraqis' hopes for change have not been met.

    "While I am not denying the huge role the U.S. played in toppling the [former] regime, the U.S. is not doing anything right now for the sake of Iraqi citizens. Americans are not trying to help Iraq improve its economic situation," Ahmed said.
     
    Iran's Expanded Role
     
    Meanwhile, as U.S. power in Iraq has steadily declined since the 2003 invasion, Maliki's embattled government has increasingly aligned itself with the region's dominant Shi'ite state, Iran, which is at odds with the U.S. on several fronts.

    Last month, the Islamic Republic thwarted anti-American cleric and Iran ally Moqtada al-Sadr's push to join Sunnis and Kurds in calling for a no-confidence vote to oust the Iraqi prime minister, a fellow Shi'ite.
     
    "Mr. Sadr was the key element in the process," said parliament member Askari, who acknowledged that Sadr's changed stance "is mainly a result of Iranian pressure" as well as pushback from within his devout base of Shi'ite supporters opposed to U.S. influence in Iraq.
     
    That rankles many Iraq policy brokers in Washington who "dislike intensely when they see Iraqis following [Iran] on so many issues in the region," said Alex Vatanka, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.
     
    While the Iraqi political crisis has eased for the moment, the sectarian conflict in neighboring Syria continues to unnerve Shi'ite leaders in Iraq.
     
    Resurgent religious violence has added to fears that regional Sunni powers - chiefly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey - want to topple the Damascus and Baghdad governments by any means.
     
    "Whenever you have [the] Shia-Sunni schism across the Middle East, the Iraqi Shia look to [their co-religionists] in the region for support, and, obviously, the biggest, most powerful Shia state is Iran," said Vatanka. "If the sectarian issue doesn't blow up, if it becomes less of a factor, the way it was just a decade ago, why can't we see an independent Iraq?" he asked.
     
    Continued U.S. Presence
     
    Maliki's government insists it wants good relations with Washington, and has signed a $3 billion deal to buy American-built F-16 fighter planes. U.S. oil giants have also begun to invest in Iraq's petroleum sector, which drives national commerce and accounts for more than 90 percent of the country's budget.
     
    "I think the United States was and will stay the milestone in Iraq's future," lawmaker Askari said. "Most Iraqi leaders - I'm talking about the [ruling] National Alliance - are keen to have strong relations with the U.S. because this is the way to build Iraq and stabilize this important region." 
     
    Many analysts agree Washington still has an important role to play in Iraq, while some American officials say a smaller, more reserved U.S. presence may actually produce better results.
     
    "I don't think we should count the U.S. completely out," said Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont. "I think there are plenty of political players in Iraq who want to keep the Americans in reserve because they don't want to be completely beholden to Iran." 
     
    Vatanka said most American diplomats who deal with Iraq believe the U.S. has a good chance of remaining a significant player in the country despite Tehran's current advantage.
     
    "It becomes an issue of looking [at] the balance sheet...and asking yourself, if you’re in Baghdad, 'what can Iran actually bring to the table in the long term while [Tehran] itself is [so] isolated in the region and internationally?" he said. "That’s why I think the U.S. can be, by far, the most likely attractive partner for Iraq."
     
    Still, by nearly all accounts, the grand strategy behind the 2003 U.S. invasion has yet to be realized.
     
    "I think the most optimistic and ambitious version of that vision - a stable, democratic Iraq, strongly allied with the United States, at peace with Israel and confronting Iran - was a pipe dream," analyst Gause said. 
     
    "That was never going to happen," he said. "The medium ambitious version of the vision - a stable, democratic Iraq with a close relationship with the U.S. - has not been achieved."
     
    VOA's Kurdish Service in Washington and Baghdad stringer Goran Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

    You May Like

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.