1 year on, Iraq going its own way
Since US troops exited, country seeks autonomy
BAGHDAD — A year after the last American troops rumbled out of Iraq, the two countries are still trying to get comfortable with a looser, more nuanced relationship as the young democracy struggles to cope with political upheaval and the legacy of war.
In the meantime, Iraq is busily pursuing its own interests — sometimes against America's wishes — as it seeks to balance its position in a precarious part of the world and reestablish itself as a regional power.
The military pullout a year ago Tuesday hardly ended Washington's engagement. The US Embassy in Baghdad, a fortress-like campus as big as Vatican City, remains a highly visible reminder of America's ongoing interest in Iraq's future.
Several senior US officials have visited Baghdad over the past year, and America's role as Iraq's biggest arms supplier ensures continuing ties to the Iraqi military for years to come.
US companies are hunting for Iraqi oil, and Chevrolet Malibus and Dodge Chargers increasingly cruise Baghdad streets, which are still dotted with checkpoints. Iraqi Airways just days ago got its first Boeing jetliner in three decades, and it is waiting for dozens more.
But Iraq, under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is visibly setting a less dependent course.
''Since the US withdrawal, Baghdad . . . has attempted to rethink its relations'' with the United States, said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. She described the strategy as trying to establish a two-way, ''nonexclusive relationship with the United States.''
Iraq's desire to go its own way was on display last month when authorities freed a jailed Hezbollah commander that Washington had wanted to keep behind bars. The United States considers Ali Mussa Daqduq to be a major threat to Americans in the region and believes the Lebanese militant was behind a brazen 2007 raid on a military base that left five US soldiers dead.
Iraqi courts determined there was insufficient evidence to keep him locked up, and the country's Shi'ite-led government refused to extradite him to the United States to face further trials.
Iraq also continues to forge ever stronger ties with neighbor Iran, Hezbollah's top patron, even as the United States and many of its allies work to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is expected to make his second visit to Baghdad soon.
Iraq has done little, for instance, to halt flights suspected of carrying Iranian arms to neighboring Syria. Although Baghdad has searched a handful of planes, saying it found nothing, its reluctance to do more exasperates Washington.
Securing Iraq, as always, remains a challenge. Although the bloodshed is not so rampant as it was during its peak in 2006 to 2007, deadly attacks against civilians remain common. Iraqi security forces still struggle to gather intelligence on militants and prevent attacks, a task made harder without help from the US military.
On Monday, a wave of bombings hit ethnically disputed northern areas and other parts of Iraq, killing 25 people and wounding dozens.
The attacks deepen fears that militants are seeking to reignite ethnic and sectarian violence in the country, where tensions remain high over areas contested between the central government and the Kurdish minority. Deadly violence also continues between the country's two dominant sects: Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
The deadliest of Monday's attacks took place in al-Mouafaqiyah, a northern village inhabited by families from the Shabak ethnic group. Seven people were killed and 11 injured in the bombing, according to police officials. Also in the north, two car bombs went off in a majority Turkomen neighborhood in the city of Tuz Khormato, killing five people and wounding 26.
The number of US government employees and contractors working at diplomatic outposts around the country has fallen below 14,000, according to figures provided by the embassy in Baghdad. That is down from about 16,000 earlier this year. It is expected to shrink to about 12,000 in 2013.
Even after the last American bases were handed over to the Iraqis and US troops rolled out across the border with Kuwait on Dec. 18, 2011, a small number of military personnel stayed in Iraq as an arm of the American Embassy. Fewer than 200 remain in the country, facilitating Iraqi arms purchases and providing weapons training.