United States president Barack Obama has announced the end of the seven-year US combat mission in Iraq today, telling Americans that it was “time to turn the page” on the chapter in Iraq. But an expert tells Crikey the withdrawal is premature and violence in the troubled nation could escalate.
Obama announced the troop withdrawal during a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office this morning. Fifty thousand troops are due to leave the troubled nation by the end of next year, with the Iraqi government being left responsible for its own security.
But while Obama’s announcement has been expected for some time — it was a key plank in his campaign for the Oval Office — Dr Matthew Gray, lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, has told Crikey that he believes the withdrawal is “premature” and that insurgents could take advantage of a less-than-secure environment in Iraq.
“The tempo of violence has gone back up in recent months which I would put down in part to the Americans taking this step,” Gray told Crikey. “This may be good news for Obama, the Democrats and the American people but it is not necessarily good news for the Iraqi people.”
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In making his announcement, Obama said that the Iraqi people were ready to take the nation’s security into their own hands, citing recent elections and strengthened Iraqi security forces as the reasons for his optimism. According to the White House, 665,000 Iraqi Security Forces have been trained by the US military to fill the void after the withdrawal.
But Gray said it was the lack of infrastructure and experience that would plague the Iraqi security forces in the absence of US troops.
“If you look at what the Iraqis need, they don’t have the military capabilities needed to ensure long-term security,” he said. “The armed forces have been recruited in large numbers, as have the police. But there is still the problem of training and capabilities, as well as the problem of filling more complex roles.”
Obama carefully avoided excessive triumphalism during his speech, in an effort to distance himself from former president George W. Bush. Bush famously made a speech to US troops in the weeks after the initial invasion in front of “mission accomplished” banner.
Obama did offer some praise to his predecessor for his patriotism and support for the troops, before going on to say war had come at a great cost to the American people:
“Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest — it’s in our own. The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people. We spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.”
Facing heightening scrutiny over his handling of the nation’s domestic woes, Obama aimed to refocus the announcement on restoring the US economy.
“Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas,” he said. “Unfortunately, over the last decade, we’ve not done what’s necessary to shore up the foundations of our own prosperity.”
But Gray says while the US will still assist the Iraqis in an advisory role, an early exit could come back to haunt them should violence escalate: “That’s my concern, as much as I hate to say it after seven years of war, but this step seems like it is premature.”