WASHINGTON — Iraq's troubled start to life without U.S. forces calls into question the Obama administration's assertion that it has wound down America's long war responsibly: at least 78 killed in blasts across the country in a single day last week, a protracted political crisis with no end in sight, top political leaders accusing each other of monstrous criminality.
An extension of the costly and unpopular deployment of American troops to Iraq may have only temporarily suppressed some of the tensions, but the heightened violence and political dysfunction illustrate the unfinished business the United States has left behind in Iraq. Nine years after American proponents of intervention predicted a cakewalk, a welcome mat and Iraqis singing and flying kites in a shining example of democracy for the Arab world, the U.S. is still struggling to finish the job.
It is unclear how much more help Iraq wants, either. Last month's send-off of the last U.S. soldiers was inauspiciously followed by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordering an arrest warrant for the country's highest-ranking Sunni official, threatening to exclude the rival sect's main political party from his government and warning of "rivers of blood" if Sunnis sought an autonomous region.
The Obama administration is defending the military withdrawal from Iraq, after the two countries were unable to agree on whether American troops should be granted legal immunity. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview aired Sunday that "periodic acts of violence" in Iraq, like those seen recently, are not new and that the thousands of U.S. civilians working there can be safe under Iraqi protection.
"We're confident that we have an Iraqi government and an Iraqi security force that is capable of dealing with the security threats that are there now," Panetta told CBS "Face the Nation."
But President Barack Obama's decision is being attacked by critics during an election year.
"In all due respect, Iraq is unraveling. It's unraveling because we did not keep residual forces there," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain also spoke on CBS.
Leading U.S. efforts, the State Department got $6.2 billion in Iraq funds for the year. Some $3.8 billion is for the department's operations, including for the deployment of several hundred diplomats, civil service experts and specialists in fields from agriculture and commerce to health and education. Hundreds more are needed for management, logistics and security support in a land still wracked by violence. Thousands of security contractors are also being employed. The Defense Department got an additional $11 billion to wrap up military operations and fund a leftover contingent of advisers and officials.
The total is a small amount against the backdrop of $1.3 trillion spent on Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade. Yet it belies any notion that the U.S. and Iraq can easily — or cheaply — "normalize" a relationship that has more often than not been nonexistent over the last four decades.
In Baghdad, the Vatican-sized American Embassy stands like a city within a city, a reminder of the previous administration's ambitious vision of an ironclad U.S.-Iraqi alliance based on shared interests, peace and democracy. By far the biggest such U.S. outpost overseas and costing several hundred million dollars, the danger is it ends up being a symbol of U.S. isolation, its diplomats ensconced safely inside but unable to influence events beyond the fortress walls.
The Obama administration has maintained some of the optimistic Bush-era rhetoric for its vision of the future, while acknowledging that much depends on solving Iraq's immediate problems. When al-Maliki teamed up with Muqtada al-Sadr's hardline Shiite supporters, it guaranteed him the prime minister's office. The U.S. secured a role for Ayad Allawi's Sunni-led bloc after it won the most parliamentary seats, but key decisions on the legislation for the power-sharing arrangement were pushed off. Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries were similarly left for later. Now is later.