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What's best for Iraq

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US occupationBy Mike Hanna

From the viewpoint of those living in Iraq, there's a special irony to the fact that the young senator who opposed the US occupation of Iraq is now the president who says he's committed to ending it - fulfilling a campaign promise that was rooted, he said, in its honest conviction that the war was wrong.

When Barack Obama became commander-in-chief, he assumed responsibility for a military force that was involved in two major wars - Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two wars have played a major role in defining his presidency to date, particularly as their execution came at a time of severe economic downturn.

The unilateral deadline to reduce the number of US forces in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of this month has been met - and the occasion used by the president to make a rare speech to the American people from the Oval Office.

He made the point that it was from the same chair that George Bush declared the beginning of the war in Iraq seven and a half years earlier, and it was made known that he had a short conversation with his predecessor a few hours before making his address.

Obama timetable

What was not mentioned in the speech is the fact that it was the Bush administration that reached a security agreement with Iraq specifying all US troops would withdraw by the end of 2011.

Obama did not initiate the agreement to end the occupation. The decision to reduce the troop numbers to 50,000 by August 31 was one taken by Obama, and one taken unilaterally rather than in the form of agreement with Iraq's leaders.

This timetable then was one set by the Obama administration alone, and would appear to be rooted in the desire to keep a campaign promise to end the war rather than a reaction to what was actually happening in Iraq.

It's for this reason that many within Iraq believe that the timetable of what the US calls its "drawdown" process is being determined more by US domestic considerations - bearing in mind mid-term elections are looming - rather than by what is regarded as being best for Iraq itself.

Air of cynicism

There is an air of cynicism within this country about the assumption that Iraq's political leaders have the ability to govern, or that the security forces have the capacity to protect.

It's an assumption that many see as being made more because it suits Obama politically to be seen disengaging rather than a decision rooted in Iraq's own interests.

The US presidential statement that the process "completed a transition to Iraqi responsibility for its own security" came only seven days after more than 50 people were killed and hundreds wounded in apparently co-ordinated attacks in as many as 13 Iraqi towns and cities.

The sheer scale of the attacks is itself an apparent message that those intent on fomenting instability have the ability to strike where and when they wish.

Priorities at home

The exercise of sovereignty the president envisages may have to wait until a government is formed. Some six months after an election there is still no agreement between politicians on what form a government will take.

In place at this time of "assuming sovereignty" - a caretaker administration that does not have any constitutional right to govern in any sense of the word.

The real reason behind the Obama policy could lie in yet another statement made - during his speech about Iraq the president made clear his real priorities were at home.

"Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work," Obama said.

It's been a time of twisted semantics - the president for example welcomed the "withdrawal of the last combat brigade" despite the fact that six Brigade Combat Teams, each comprising some 8,000 armed soldiers with heavy army and strong air support, remain in Iraq.

But his statement about what he considers his "most urgent task" was direct and unequivocal.

The fact that he made mention of restoring the US economy in a speech assessing the situation in Iraq made another thing clear, whatever the primary reason for George Bush launching the war - his predecessor is ending it because it costs too much.

Mike Hanna is an award-winning correspondent with more than 30 years' experience.


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