As the media trumpets sound for the pullback of American troops from urban areas in Iraq, the essential lesson of our involvement must be recalled: Nothing about our entanglement in Iraq has ever been as it seemed.

We did not invade because Saddam Hussein was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as Bush administration officials repeatedly suggested, or even because Iraq threatened the United States with stores of chemical and biological weapons. The 2005 Iraqi election symbolized with images of purple ink stains on voters’ fingertips — an anti-fraud measure later promoted by House Republicans, who stained their own fingers purple in support of President George Bush’s State of the Union address delivered soon afterward — did not result in a flourishing democracy or an end to the U.S. military occupation. The bloody insurgency intensified and Bush belatedly deployed additional troops to quell it.

So at most, what we witness this week with the repositioning of American troops is yet another of those “turning points” we heard about so often from our former president. We hope it will send us, and the Iraqis, along a straight and bright path out of violence. Yet the view from this crossroads even now continues to be obscured by an upsurge in killing and uncertainty about Iraq’s political future. The essential question being asked and routinely answered — are Iraq security forces ready to take over from the American military? — is too limited, and predictably off-base.

What if the answer turns out to be no? What if there are continued bombings that claim hundreds of civilian lives, sectarian militias take control of some regions and popular uprisings sprout in others? What, exactly, would we do?

Despite the presence of 131,000 U.S. troops who will remain in Iraq, there is no political support at home for anything that would look like an open-ended reassertion of American military control. Besides, the removal of troops from urban areas is mostly cosmetic, as American forces have merely been redeployed to less visible areas on the outskirts of central cities, according to Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East at the nonpartisan International Crisis Group. “In any case, they are available if called upon or invited by the Iraqi security forces. That’s the main thing,” he said in a phone interview from Amman, Jordan. “It is a formal handover and the Iraqis are allowed to claim victory. But a whole lot doesn’t change.”

The change that is necessary is the same change that has been needed since the toppling of the old regime and the dismantling of the government by American officials in 2003. Iraq needs to rebuild every institution that we normally associate with a functioning country. Yet it cannot do so without resolving the elemental disputes that have stymied reconciliation for the past six years.

Still unresolved is whether power ultimately will be decentralized or concentrated in a central government — both are conceivable under the constitution ratified in 2005. There is no resolution on how oil revenues are to be distributed among those regions of the country with no oil reserves. There is no answer to the volatile questions posed by the Kurdish region, most substantial among them the fate of ethnically divided Kirkuk, prized for its oil.

The challenge of resolving these before the scheduled withdrawal of American combat forces, to be completed by September of next year, is tougher than the mini-test the Pentagon says both Americans and Iraqis are passing with the urban troop redeployments. “What is the U.S. going to do to stabilize the country before it leaves?” Hiltermann asks.

The question has gone mostly unanswered even with the ascension of President Barack Obama. He won election on the promise of an American troop withdrawal and that, in the mind of a weary American public, is that.

But there is a reason the Bush administration was unable to get out of Iraq quickly, and it is found in the regional, ethnic and sectarian divides that persist. “The problem with Iraq is that there really is no state. Iraqis can reach agreement but they can’t make it stick,” Hiltermann says. “There are all these fractures. The Americans will have to provide that glue, still.”

Beneath the hype of yet another military turning point, this is the peril that remains.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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