In a crystal-chandeliered palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein, American and Iraqi leaders gathered Wednesday for the latest ceremony to herald an independent, democratic Iraq.
But in the same city, both inside and outside the domed palace serving as America’s military headquarters at the walled-off Baghdad airport compound, a more sober mood prevailed.
As the American combat mission officially ended, Iraqi politicians, security officers and civil servants spoke of a daunting series of challenges they face until the end of 2011, when the last of nearly 50,000 remaining U.S. troops assisting Iraqi forces are scheduled to depart.
At the top of the list are how to combat steadily rising violence and how to cope with the lack of a new government six months after inconclusive national elections were held. Rather than move forward, the parliament has met just once, and Iraq’s caretaker government has stalled on projects aimed at improving people’s lives.
“There are no decisions. We are just hanging now and we have stopped everything. We are waiting for the government to make decisions,” said Ghazi Abdul Aziz Essa, director-general of Baghdad’s main power plant."The delay affects the system very badly. It’s not good for us.”
After a government is formed, many emphasize, a mountain of problems remains to be dealt with.
Among the points at issue: reconciliation of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, the splitting of oil revenue and the disputed ownership of lands now controlled by Arabs and Kurds and an equitable revision of the nation’s constitution.
“If they do not have faith in each other, it will be a weak government. Decisions will be blocked. It will be a weak, democratic system,” said longtime Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman, who served in Iraq’s Governing Council under the Americans. “If the groups don’t trust each other, the possibility comes up of [even more] violence. I hope it won’t be there but we have to put it in consideration.”
On Wednesday, such fears were momentarily set aside as an American military brass band played the national anthems of Iraq and the United States in the domed palace wrested from Hussein after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Commanders spoke with a restrained optimism about Iraq’s future and called on Iraqi political blocs to form a new government, downplaying the increasing violence while praising the competence and attitude of Iraqi security forces. They honored the memories of the 4,416 U.S. military personnel and the estimated 112,000 Iraqis who died in the strife of the last seven years.
“We fought together, we laughed together and sometimes cried together. We stood side by side and shed blood together. But it was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty and justice,” outgoing commander Gen. Ray T. Odierno told a sea of soldiers and dignitaries. “Because of your tremendous efforts, justice has replaced chaos, accord has replaced strife and hope has replaced despair.”
But many Iraqis, including some who wholeheartedly believe the war was worth the cost, voice trepidation about the American withdrawal.
Maj. Gen. Noaman Jawad, the head of an elite police brigade, swears that the world for his children will be far better than what they would have known under Hussein. But he remains skeptical about his own safety when the final American soldiers leave at the end of 2011 under a joint agreement reached during the George W. Bush presidency.
“If I have a 95% threat on my life now, it will be million percent when the Americans leave,” Jawad said.
Since an election slate headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi won slightly more parliamentary seats than that of current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a stalemate has persisted, casting a bold spotlight on the differences between Maliki’s mainly Shiite backers and Allawi’s secular Shiite and Sunni support base.
Rival parties speak bitterly about one another. Maliki’s rivals argue that if he wins a second term, he will establish a dictatorial regime; Maliki’s backers warn that without his guidance, the government could slip into paralysis or slide back into civil war.
Allawi, for his part, has warned that if he doesn’t get the chance to head the government, the country risks violence. Allawi’s supporters are now whispering that the United States has betrayed them despite the fact that his slate won 91 seats to Maliki’s 89.
“Mr. Maliki is supported by Iran and America. We don’t understand this,” said Qutaiba Turki, a parliament member of Allawi’s list. “I think America killed freedom and democracy in Iraq when they left Iraq in the hands of Iran and Maliki.”
Othman also spoke in grim terms. He bluntly criticized the American drawdown as a domestic calculation for President Obama. He emphasized that he agreed with the goal of removing American troops but said the timing was wrong.
“If they could have [waited for] Iraqis to form their government it would have been better,” he said. “But Obama made a promise to the voters. November elections are approaching and the Democrats aren’t expected to do very well. Obama wants more support from the people.”
Officials talk of a ruling coalition that includes all the major political blocs as the only way forward, and wonder what happens if one side or the other fails to join in. All worry about the role of neighboring countries: Sunnis speak darkly of Iran’s role; Shiites point to the invisible hand of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Some Iraqi security officials describe the country as remaining very much ensnared in an internal war. Jawad said Iraq is as at least two years away from an end to its conflicts.
“We are still in the middle of a civil war, but we have passed through the sectarian war,” Jawad said. “Iraqis are still killing each other.”
He said the government was battling figures from political parties, organized crime and armed groups. “Once the government is formed, with an economic program, oil and reconstruction providing jobs ... eventually we will absorb all the people causing the violence.”
A senior U.S. military officer, who was not authorized to talk publicly, agreed Wednesday that violence is bound to continue.
“The war for Iraq, who is going to control Iraq, is just getting underway,” the officer said. “It’s too early to declare complete success.... In the end if this doesn’t succeed, maybe we destroyed Iraq and imperiled the region.”
The American officer framed the conflict as one between secular and religious Iraqis, as well as a fight between Arab nations and Iran for influence in Iraq.
Perhaps the biggest challenge remains addressing the popular discontent over the government’s continuing failure to adequately provide for the general population. The longer the current stalemate goes on, the less faith Iraqis have in their democratic system. The country’s new elected leaders soon will have to show they can make good on promises of a better life, several leaders said.
“People have changed their point of view. They feel sorry for having done what they did. If they voted today, they would change their votes,” said lawmaker Wael Abdul Latif, a former governor of Basra. “They think the current political powers have failed.”
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Riyadh Mohammed contributed to this report.