The Obama administration announced it will not replace two US brigades (12,000 troops) now departing Iraq. The step will leave 128,000 US troops in Iraq through the December 2009, parliamentary elections—ostensibly the last to be conducted under US auspices. By August, 2010, another 80,000 to 100,000 troops will be withdrawn, with all combat forces scheduled to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
There are now 140,000 US troops in the country, down from 160,000 in 2008 during the “surge.” The two brigades will likely be brought out of Anbar province and Baghdad. Anbar, once one of the most violent places in Iraq (and the world) has seen attacks and deaths decline dramatically since the tribal Awakening Councils started taking US salaries to fight Sunni extremists. Baghdad is also much less violent than in 2007—in large part because the Sunni population has largely been ethnically cleansed from the capital, which seems to be 80% Shi’ite now. The 4,000 British troops stationed at the airport in Basra will also leave by the end of June, 2009.
The security challenges remaining in Iraq were demonstrated by the nine bombings over the weekend, including a major attack by a suicide bomber at a police training facility in central Baghdad. That attack killed at least 32 and wounded 60. Among the dead were eight police officials. Despite large numbers of attacks on recruits and police, however, Sunni insurgents have not prevented the establishment of a large, newly trained police force and army.
The establishment of Sunni-majority elected provincial assemblies after the Jan. 31 provincial elections in Anbar, Ninevah, Salahuddin and Diyala raises the question of whether Sunni Iraqis will begin channeling their energies into improving their provinces instead of supporting the insurgents.
The potential for Sunni-Shi’ite reconciliation was attested to on Friday when nearly a million Shiites converged on the Askariya shrine or golden dome of Samarra to commemorate the death of Imam Hasan al-Askari, who is buried at the shrine. Samarra is a Sunni-majority city in the strongly Sunni province of Salahuddin, the site of many guerrilla attacks against US troops and those of the new Iraqi military. There was little violence associated with this pilgrimage. In February 2006, Sunni insurgents blew up the shrine of Samarra, setting off nearly two years of civil war. (Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, March 9)