In mid-August, America withdrew the last of its combat troops from Iraq, leaving around 50,000 'non-combat' forces behind. What does this withdrawal mean for Iraq, its neighbours and the US? Eamonn Gearon writes from New York. Meanwhile, in a separate report Anthony Skinner, principal Middle East analyst with the global risk advisory firm, Maplecroft, has prepared an exclusive report for The Middle East on the possible perils of the US move.
At the beginning of the summer, the United States had 130,000 troops in Iraq, seven years after the invasion that toppled then president Saddam Hussein. The military campaign had the declared purpose of halting Hussein's programme to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction.
No such weapons were found. While Hussein was finally tried and hanged, the most significant result of the US-led invasion was Iraq's descent into a bloody, internecine civil war. Although levels of violence against both military and civilians are down from earlier highs, suicide bombings and other murderous activities remain a feature of everyday life in Iraq in 2010.
According to an estimate from the British security-consulting firm AKE, although violence in Iraq has dropped from its 2006 and 2007 levels, an average of 50 Iraqis have died each week in 2010.
In light of this fact, it might seem strange that, in the dead of the night on 18 August, American combat troops withdrew. While nobody was foolish enough to trumpet claims of "mission accomplished", for the soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the lack of fanfare, or indeed any announcement until after the fact, must have been particularly acute. Sadly, however, although the withdrawal fulfilled US President Obama's pledge to remove combat troops by the end of August, it marks little else in the way of progress in Iraq.
While some would call the departure, two weeks ahead of schedule, a positive sign, others see it as nothing short of a midnight flit, with American forces leaving in secret so as to deny their enemies the pleasure of any deadly last minute attacks against them. The admission of powerful enemies still present in the country is surely an admission of failure in itself. That said, to stay would hardly have made things better.
But what sort of withdrawal is it that leaves behind around 50,000 so-called "non-combat" troops, not to mention America's peerless naval and marine forces in the region?
Of far greater significance, the Obama administration's promise to achieve a complete withdrawal from Iraq by 31 December 2011 is the more important deadline, and one that must be met to satisfy both election promises and the court of public opinion. Between now and then, as President Obama said in August, "Our commitment in Iraq is changing from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."
That is to say, diplomats and 50,000 "non combatant" troops. What the Pentagon means by a weapon-carrying--non-combatant soldier is unclear and confused, as are answers to the question from both military and civil officials. What one can say with confidence is that, for Iraq's neighbours and anyone harbouring anti-American sentiments, the presence of 50,000 American soldiers in Iraq does not equal an end to the occupation of that country.
US election-cycles aside, the most important thing to consider about the reduction and eventual complete American military withdrawal is how this will impact on Iraq and its Arab and non-Arab neighbours.
The American exit will inevitably create a regional power vacuum, at least in the short term. Iran, Saudi...