Click here for images of Iraq: Obama's inherited war.
Hundreds of cars waiting in the heat to slowly pass through one of the dozens of checkpoints and searches they must endure every day. The constant roar of generators. The smell of fuel, of sewage, of kabobs. Automatic weapons pointed at your head out of military vehicles, out of SUVs with tinted windows. Mountains of garbage. Rumors of the latest assassination or explosion. Welcome to the new Iraq, same as the old Iraq -- even if Barack Obama has declared George W. Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom over and announced the beginning of his own Operation New Dawn, and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared Iraq sovereign and independent.
Iraq has had several declarations of sovereignty since the first one in June 2004. As with earlier milestones, it's not clear what exactly this one means. Since the Americans have declared the end of combat operations, U.S. Stryker and MRAP vehicles can be seen conducting patrols without Iraqi escorts in parts of the country and the Americans continue to conduct unilateral military operations in Mosul and elsewhere, even if under the guise of "force protection" or "countering improvised explosive devices." American military officers in Iraq told me they were irate with the politically driven announcement from the White House that combat troops had withdrawn. Those remaining still consider themselves combat troops, and commanders say there is little change in their rules of engagement -- they will still respond to threats pre-emptively.
Iraq is still being held back from full independence -- and not merely by the presence of 50,000 U.S. soldiers. The Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates that U.S. forces will be totally out by 2011, deprives Iraq of full sovereignty. The U.N.'s Chapter 7 sanctions force Iraq to pay 5 percent of its oil revenues in reparations, mostly to the Kuwaitis, denying Iraqis full sovereignty and isolating them from the international financial community. Saudi and Iranian interference, both political and financial, has also limited Iraq's scope for democracy and sovereignty. Throughout the occupation, major decisions concerning the shape of Iraq have been made by the Americans with no input or say by the Iraqis: the economic system, the political regime, the army and its loyalties, the control over airspace, and the formation of all kinds of militias and tribal military groups. The effects will linger for decades, regardless of any future milestones the United States might want to announce.
The Americans, meanwhile, worry about losing their leverage at a time when concerns still run high about a renewed insurgency, Shiite militias, and the explosion of the Arab-Kurdish powder keg everybody's been talking about for the last seven years. Many in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wonder what Obama's vision for Iraq is. By the summer of 2006, Bush woke up every day and wanted to know what was happening in Iraq. Obama is much more detached.