From The Economist print edition
Iraqi commanders say they can run the show on their own. Really?
Aug 6th 2009 | BAGHDAD . AMERICAN commanders in Baghdad have been here before. In 2004, a year after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, they handed the reins of security to freshly trained forces of a once-again sovereign Iraq and encouraged them to take control of the main towns. But the Iraqis proved unable or unwilling to hold the line against the insurgents. The Americans delayed their exit and set about retraining the Iraqis. This time will it be different?
Probably yes. Since they again took control of the urban areas early last month, Iraqi security forces, now numbering 274,000-plus regulars and interior-ministry troops along with 277,000 police, have surprised American commanders with their new assertiveness. If anything, the Americans now find their former understudies too aggressive. â€œTheyâ€™re like kids with a brand-new muscle car, out there burning rubber,â€ says an American officer. â€œIt almost scares you.â€
That may sound condescending. But there is genuine cause for worry. Overconfidence among soldiers can be as dangerous as timidity. That was evident recently when Iraqi troops raided a camp that hosted 3,400 Iranian dissidents north of Baghdad. Most of them belong to the Peopleâ€™s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahideen-e Khalq, a group given sanctuary by Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, after it fell out with the ruling clerics in Tehran. After the Americans took over in 2003, the PMOI people at Camp Ashraf, as the place is known, were disarmed. More recently the Iraqis decided to take over the camp, doubtless with the encouragement of their ruling fellow Shias in Tehran. Ignoring American protests, the Iraqi forces killed at least 11 inmates. If such crude methods are used elsewhereâ€”for instance, in handling insurgents wanting to come onsideâ€”national reconciliation is unlikely to be achieved.
Moreover, under the new dispensation, American forces themselves feel both more constrained and more vulnerable. They can no longer move freely around Baghdad. Some say they feel as if they are â€œunder house arrestâ€. They have to ask for permission to leave their bases and can do so only under an Iraqi escort. This is a huge change. Most Iraqis like it, for it makes them feel masters in their own house.
But they may yet regret it. For a start, Iraq will still need military aid, no matter how much its government throws its weight around. Only the Americans can provide drones and helicopters as well as logistics and electronic devices. If their freedom of movement is further curbed, the Americans may start to leave earlier than at first contemplated.
On a recent visit Robert Gates, the defence secretary, said he may pull 5,000 soldiers out ahead of schedule. A leaked memorandum by a senior American staff officer in Baghdad suggests pulling all troops out by the middle of next year, 15 months early.
Would the Iraqis then be able to cope? No one is sure. The new security forces are certainly trigger-happy. Some are proving undisciplined. Last week a gang made up of members of the presidential guard and led by the head of security for the second-biggest Shia party robbed a bank, killing eight bank workers before making off with $7m.
The police did not dare stop them. In the end, troops from the interior ministry did so, but only because they belonged to a rival Shia party. Such incidents do not bode well for Iraqi peace.