On Thursday, the last U.S. combat brigade to leave Iraq crossed into Kuwait, fulfilling President Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw all but 50,000 American troops from a country with which the United States has become intimately, and painfully, familiar over the last seven and a half years.
The remaining soldiers and marines will stay in Iraq until Dec. 31, 2011, for training and other support purposes. Although the possibility cannot be ruled out, it seems quite unlikely that their presence will be extended beyond the 2011 deadline. Political imperatives in both Iraq and the United States seem to work against this possibility, even though there are those in both countries who argue that a longer-term U.S. residual force is needed.
Having landed in Baghdad as U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the end of June 2004, I find it a truly remarkable and positive accomplishment that we are able to look to the day not too far off when Iraqi security forces will be able to assume full and complete responsibility for their country's security. At the time of my arrival, Iraqi security forces were, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. There was, for example, only one -- yes, one -- Iraqi army battalion and it was composed of various ethnic and sectarian elements. Today, there are some 600,000 Iraqi security forces and important strides have been made toward giving Iraq's security organizations a national rather than partisan character. This is no small achievement; it has taken seven years to accomplish and only after some false starts and perilous moments.
In the wake of the Samarra Mosque bombing in 2006 and the ensuing sectarian strife, those of us concerned with Iraq could not have imagined the dramatic reversal of fortunes that would occur in the ensuing two years -- the death of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the liberation of Basra by the Iraqi army, and the extension of the government's authority to the country as a whole. By 2008, these improvements had given the government of Iraq the necessary self-assurance to negotiate the withdrawal arrangements that are now being implemented.
Images of a still-fragile Iraq
But can Iraq really remain stable once U.S. troops have completely withdrawn? While there are no guarantees, the prospects for Iraq's security and stability beyond 2011 look as good or better than they have at any time in the recent past. The Iraqi army now has close to 200 trained combat battalions, a formidable increase from the somber days when I arrived in 2004, and they are spread throughout the country. The specter of sectarianism poisoning the ranks of Iraqi military and police forces remains the single most serious threat to be guarded against. But progress since the 2007 surge in nurturing the army and police as truly national institutions has been encouraging. Vigilance and political maturity will be needed to ensure that this positive trend continues.