Two things happened last week which, again, painted an abstract picture of reality in Iraq. In Basra, the capital of the south, British troops packed up and left the presidential palace heading for a small base near the airport. They handed control of the city and the entire province to the Iraqi army. Now they wait for the next order from London as political and military leaders debate the timing and manner of a final departure from Iraq.
It was an uneventful retreat void of pomp and ceremony. The British marched into southern Iraq almost four years ago as part of the American-led coalition to topple the regime of Saddam Hussain. They quickly subdued the rattled pockets of resistance, took over the second largest city in Iraq and tried to impose a semblance of normalcy. It was all too easy. Then trouble started. Tribal, ethnic and sectarian tensions upset what was supposed to be a pristine operation to help the Iraqis rebuild their lives after decades of authoritarian rule.
From saviours and liberators, British troops became the enemy. Insurgents infiltrated the province and civil life collapsed. British troops began to lose control and the first coffins began arriving in the UK. In the absence of a political plan to keep the country intact, Basra joined other Iraqi towns and cities in a chaotic power struggle that involved every party and faction in the great Mesopotamian mosaic; Shiites, Sunnis, former Baathists, Jihadists, pro-Iranian agents, tribes and war lords.
In contrast to the ignominious withdrawal of British troops, another event was unfolding further north. In the heart of the so-called Sunni triangle, US President George W. Bush emerged from Air Force 1 at Al Assad base in Anbar province a confident and brazen commander-in-chief. This was only his third visit to the country he conquered in 2003, but it was probably the most important. This, after all, was the homeland of Al Qaida and other insurgents. It is here that the biggest setback for the American occupation forces took place. But now the president appeared victorious. His troop surge plan was finally bearing fruit. In his words Anbar was now the safest place in Iraq!
Too much hubris? Probably so. What turned things around in Anbar was not the increase in the number of Marines, but the strategic decision by tribal chiefs in the vast province to disband their alliance with the jihadists, most of whom are foreign combatants who had slipped into the country in the wake of the invasion. The alliance fell through after Al Qaida operatives targeted tribal leaders who were negotiating with the Baghdad government and other political leaders about political reconciliation and grievances. The Sunnis wanted a bigger role in power sharing and their militancy was not an end in itself but a means to achieve that.
This is why the president of the United States met with Anbar local leaders and discussed ways to bolster their position. The safest place in Iraq could easily reverse if the fragile political process stumbles. Surge or no surge the security situation in Iraq was not really getting any better.
The biggest test for the Americans, as well as for the embattled government of Nouri Al Maliki, is in Baghdad. With few days remaining before General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker deliver their Iraq report to Congress, Bush flew to Anbar to get a first-hand look at the security and political situation. His biggest political battle awaits him back home when the subject of US military presence in Iraq will pick up steam as Congress reconvenes and presidential hopefuls, from both parties, embrace the issue.
In Anbar Bush hinted at a possible troop reduction in the near future provided that the security situation improves. But while such statement was aimed at lifting soldiers' morale, few pundits believe the coming months will bring better news from Iraq. The British withdrawal threatens to ignite a power struggle in the strategically oil-rich south. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement that Iran was ready to fill any vacuum created by US troop withdrawal has sent jitters across the region. Later Ahmadinejad's aides claimed the president was misquoted and what he meant was that the vacuum will be filled by Iraq's neighbours to stabilise the country.
Britain's departure may force the US to dispatch troops to the south to circumvent Iranian and pro-Iranian parties from taking over. On the other hand, Bush is still frustrated with the performance of Al Maliki's government, which is believed to have missed two-thirds of the 18 benchmarks it was supposed to meet, most important of which is to initiate a country-wide political reconciliation.
Meanwhile, US military commanders are tightening the noose around the Mahdi Army, a renegade force of young Shiite extremists under the leadership of Moqtada Al Sadr, a hotheaded cleric whose followers are believed to be responsible for the inter-Shiite carnage that took place in Karbala recently. It is against these complicated political and security issues that British withdrawal has taken place. Not a good timing for Bush, whose consolation prize was the assurance by Australian Prime Minister John Howard that his country's few hundred soldiers will not be leaving Iraq any sooner.
Osama Al Sharif is a Jordanian journalist based in Amman.