With war over, the dangerous, difficult work begins in Iraq

By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD – In a crystal-chandeliered palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein, American and Iraqi leaders gathered Wednesday for the latest ceremony to herald an independent, democratic Iraq.

But in the same city, both inside and outside the domed palace and the fortress walls of the Green Zone, a more sober mood prevailed.

As the American combat mission officially ended, Iraqi politicians, security officers and civil servants spoke of a daunting series of challenges they face between now and the end of 2011, when the last of nearly 50,000 remaining American troops assisting Iraqi forces are scheduled to have departed.

At the top of the list: how to combat steadily rising violence and how to cope with the lack of a new government, six months after inconclusive national elections were held. Rather than move forward, parliament has met just once, and Iraq’s caretaker government has stalled on projects aimed at improving people’s lives.

“There are no decisions. We are just hanging now, and we have stopped everything. We are waiting for the government to make decisions,” said Ghazi Abdul Aziz Essa, director-general of Baghdad’s main power plant. “The delay affects the system very badly. It’s not good for us.”

After a government is formed, many emphasize, a mountain of problems remain to be dealt with.

Among them: reconciliation of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups; the splitting of oil revenues and the disputed ownership of lands now controlled by Arabs and Kurds; and an equitable revision of the nation’s constitution.

“If they do not have faith in each other, it will be a weak government. Decisions will be blocked. It will be a weak, democratic system,” said longtime Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman, who served in Iraq’s Governing Council under the Americans. “If the groups don’t trust each other, the possibility comes up of (even more) violence. I hope it won’t be there, but we have to put it in consideration.”

On Wednesday, such fears were momentarily set aside as an American military brass band played the Iraqi national anthem and then the American one in the domed palace wrested from Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Commanders spoke with restrained optimism about Iraq’s future and called on Iraqi political blocs to form a new government, downplaying the increasing violence while praising the competence and attitude of Iraqi security forces.

“We fought together, we laughed together and sometimes cried together. We stood side by side and shed blood together. But it was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty and justice,” outgoing commander General Ray T. Odierno told a sea of soldiers and dignitaries. “Because of your tremendous efforts, justice has replaced chaos, accord has replaced strife, and hope has replaced despair.”

But even Iraqis who wholeheartedly believe the war was worth the cost of more than 112,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, along with more than 4,400 American fatalities, still voice trepidation about the American withdrawal.

Major General Noaman Jawad, the head of an elite police brigade, swears that the world for his children will be far better than what they would have known under Hussein. But even he remains skeptical about his own safety when the final American soldiers leave at the end of 2011 under a joint agreement reached during the Bush presidency.

“If I have a 95 percent threat on my life now, it will be a million percent when the Americans leave,” Jawad said.

Othman also spoke in grim terms. He bluntly criticized the American drawdown as a domestic calculation for President Barack Obama. He emphasized that he agreed with the goal of removing American troops but that the timing was wrong.

“If they could haves Iraqis to form their government it would have been better,” he said. “But Obama made a promise to the voters. November elections are approaching, and the Democrats aren’t expected to do very well. Obama wants more support from the people.”