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It was hailed as National Sovereignty Day – a day when Iraq was being handed back to Iraqis. But the US withdrawal from Iraqi towns and citieson 30 June has failed to live up to its expectations, and with devastating consequences for the Iraqi people.
An escalation of attacks since that day, including a multitude of near-simultaneous attacks on Wednesday that killed at least 95 people and injured more than 560, suggest the Iraqi security forces are not yet able to combat the insurgent and terrorist threat independent of US supervision.
What makes Wednesday's attacks – blamed on Sunni extremists – particularly significant is that they were carried out with an unusual level of sophistication in some of the most secure areas of Baghdad. Reports suggest the attackers had the backing of political actors high-up within the Iraqi government, something that becomes worryingly plausible when trying to comprehend how exactly a lorry packed with explosives was able to make its way through countless checkpoints and up to 30ft near a heavily guarded ministry.
Such assertions, and the fact that militants are still able to hit heavily guarded targets, provides considerable cause for concern since it would suggest that the Sunni insurgency, usually contained in the volatile north in places like Mosul, is now gaining ground, able to extend its reach to, and cause havoc in, the generally more secure south. Complacency and negligence, like removing security barriers, will have made the attacks more fatal than usual.
Despite all this, US troops are unlikely to return to the streets in Baghdad: first, because attacks of great magnitude, like those on Wednesday, do not form part of daily Iraqi life as they have done previously and, second, since Maliki – who called the withdrawal a "repulsion of the occupiers" – has engaged in too much nationalistic posturing to opt for what would be a politically disastrous and embarrassing retraction.
However, US troops arereturning to northern Iraq where Arab and Kurd confrontations along a 300-mile long swath of disputed territory could all too easily make the transition to civil war.
It is in Mosul specifically that tensions are at their highest between the Kurds and the Arabs, represented essentially by a Ba'athist anti-Kurd grouping called al-Hadba, which took control of the province from the Kurds after it won the January provincial elections this year. The Kurds want to incorporate several areas in northern Mosul province, in accordance withArticle 140 of the Iraqi constitution, while al-Hadba, backed by exiled Ba'athists in Syria and Yemen accused of sponsoring the insurgency, fiercely oppose this.
Political wrangling between the two has led to tit-for-tat accusations of terrorist attacks on civilians and al-Hadba's refusal to include members of other groups in the provincial council, in contrast to efforts made by the Kurds after the 2005 elections, which the Sunnis boycotted, but who were nevertheless offered seats on the council.
To prevent all-out war, as they have done before, the US will act as a buffer between the two groups and stop the terrorists from capitalising on the tensions. But for how long? Kurd-Arab tensions in northern Iraq may not be resolved until Kurd-Arab reconciliation takes place in Baghdad. This, however, requires resolution of outstanding issues like the disputed territories that, in light of the recent decision to indefinitely postpone a nationwide census, is set to remain unresolved for some time.
US troops may have also returned to northern Iraq as part of Maliki's electoral strategy, since it would have been more feasible to have kept them there in the first place.
Maliki will need some sort of stability and security to return to Iraq as it heads closer to the national elections; but he will also advocate his nationalistic credentials and so cannot have a significant US presence in town come January. It is possible, therefore, that the PM may have US troops operating in significant numbers for up to two months to instil a sense of security in the electorate. He may even launch an audacious security operation. This would give him at least another two months to capitalise on what could be an acceptable degree of stability and credibly campaign on his usual security platform with only a minimal US presence. The January 2010 referendum on the Sofa agreement could also be utilised to bolster his nationalistic credentials.
Having said that, it would be unfair to appraise Maliki's every move as part of a wider quest for power. Mosul, for example, might now have a more urgent need for a sizeable US force given that the insurgents have shown they can effectively strike at other parts of the country beyond their bases in the north.
Juan Cole and Jonathan Steele retain some hope and advise that future attacks could be prevented if there is reconciliation with disgruntled Sunni Arabs. But what if the discontent among the Sunni Arabs, including the insurgency, is more to do with a refusal to accept that they no longer dominate the seats of power? Cole refers to this but fails to provide a remedy.
As it stands, President Obama's promise to remove US troops over the next 12 months is optimistic, even reckless. The withdrawal should now be under review and altered to accommodate on-the-ground realities if the country is to be saved from falling into the hands of a potentially revitalised insurgency.
It is highly likely that a huge contingent of US forces will remain in the north should such a US withdrawal materialise; perhaps it is time to reconsider the South-Korean model for Iraq. As Oliver August writes for the Times in Baghdad, the Americans are perceived in a more positive light "having gone from occupier to policeman" since the handover in June.
In other words, having Americans around would not be so bad after all. The question is whether the Obama administration will continue to overlook Iraq in favour of the publicly "more acceptable" war in Afghanistan, a country of far less wealth, potential, and geopolitical importance.
This article was originally published by the Guardian and can be found here