On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq from aboard the USS Lincoln. However, five more years of violence and the deaths of more than 4,000 American soldiers are painful evidence that the war has over- whelmed the victory Bush sought to claim. Although U.S. forces were successful in ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime, the fragile gains in stability and security have come at a high price.
Within months of the onset of the U.S. invasion, a multi-party insurgency emerged in Iraq. Sectarian groups engaged in violence aimed at American and al- lied troops, as well as opposing Iraqi factions. The most notable of these groups were Al Qaeda in Iraq, which drew foreign fighters from Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and the 60,000-member Madhi Army, raised and led by radical Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Department of Defense reported in November 2006 that both average weekly attacks and average daily casualties were at their highest levels in more than two years. In response to the rise in violence, President Bush committed to a 20,000 troop “surge” in early 2007. This strategy, which lasted into July 2008, was intended to provide an improved security environment for the Iraqi government to reconcile sectarian opponents and complete 18 political and military benchmarks. Al- though violence declined in 2008 compared to 2006, the changing security climate depended substantially on consecutive ceasefires called by Sadr and the assistance of Sunni Awakening militias. This increase in security also came at the cost of additional deployments for the already overstretched U.S. military.
In July 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for the United States to set a date for the withdrawal of combat troops. He was echoed more pointedly by his national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who declared that the government would not agree to a document governing the future of the American military presence in Iraq without “a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops.” Bush and Maliki subsequently negotiated for American troops to leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and for all combat troops to be redeployed by December 31, 2011. As of early November, it was unclear whether either side would officially approve this arrangement.
While Bush and Maliki were finalizing details of the proposed withdrawal agreement, the Iraqi Parliament passed legislation governing provincial elections to be held in January of 2009. While the law’s passage is ostensibly a step forward for Iraqi politics, its approval masked persistent ethnic tensions and unimplemented reconciliation. Parliament was only able to pass the bill by deferring consideration of a power-sharing agree- ment on the northern city of Kirkuk. In order to over- come this dispute, and hold comprehensive, fair elec- tions, Iraqi leaders will have to prioritize their country’s future over their own ethnic and religious affiliations. Bush’s surge strategy was intended to create a security environment in which this unity could develop, but ultimately failed to do so.
The next president will be faced with vital political and military questions on the future of the U.S. forces in Iraq. He will be responsible for working with Iraqis to define the role of U.S. troops in the country and to determine for how long, and at what levels, they should continue to be deployed.
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