U.S. Marks End to 9-Year War, Leaving an Uncertain Iraq

The concrete blast walls that shielded the shopping stalls have lately
come down. Since then, three explosions have struck the market,
killing several people.

“This will be an easy target for car bombs,” said Muhammad Ali, a
merchant who lost two brothers during the cruelest times of the
conflict. “People will die here.”

After nearly nine years, about 4,500 American fatalities and $1
trillion, America’s war in Iraq is about to end. Officials marked the
finish on Thursday with a modest ceremony at the airport days before
the last troops take the southern highway to Kuwait, going out as they
came in, to conclude the United States’ most ambitious and bloodiest
military campaign since Vietnam.

For the United States, the war leaves an uncertain legacy as Americans
weigh what may have been accomplished against the price paid, with so
many dead and wounded. The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was
vanquished, but the failure to find illicit weapons undermined the
original rationale, leaving a bitter taste as casualties mounted. The
lengthy conflict and repeated deployments strained the country and its
resources, raising questions about America’s willingness to undertake
future wars on such a grand scale.

Iraqis will be left with a country that is not exactly at war, and not
exactly at peace. It has improved in many ways since the 2007 troop
“surge,” but it is still a shattered country marred by violence and
political dysfunction, a land defined on sectarian lines whose future,
for better or worse, is now in the hands of its people.

“It is the end for the Americans only,” Emad Risn, an Iraqi columnist,
recently wrote in Assabah al-Jadeed, a government-financed newspaper.
“Nobody knows if the war will end for Iraqis, too.”

Iraq will now be on its own both to find its place in a region upended
by revolutions and to manage its rivalry with Iran, which will look to
expand its influence culturally and economically in the power vacuum
left by the United States military. While American officials worry
about the close political ties between Iraq’s Shiite leadership and
Iran, the picture at the grass-roots level is more nuanced. Iraqis
complain about shoddy Iranian consumer goods — they frequently mention
low-quality yogurts and cheeses — and the menacing role of
Iranian-backed militias, which this year killed many American
soldiers.

Failed Reconciliation

The Iranian rivalry frequently plays out in the Shiite holy city of
Najaf, where Iraq’s religious authorities are based. Iran, which like
Iraq is majority Shiite, recently installed one of its leading clerics
in Najaf, raising worries that Iran is trying to spread its brand of
clerical rule to Iraq. Meanwhile, Moktada al-Sadr, an anti-American
cleric with very close ties to Iran, has recently said that with the
military withdrawal, American diplomats are now fair game for his
militiamen.

Iraq faces a multitude of vexing problems the Americans tried and
failed to resolve, from how to divide the country’s oil wealth to
sectarian reconciliation to the establishment of an impartial justice
system. A longstanding dispute festers in the north over how to share
power in Kirkuk between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, an ominous harbinger
for power struggles that may ensue in a post-America Iraq. A recent
deal between Exxon Mobil and the Kurdistan government in the north has
been deemed illegal by Baghdad in the absence of procedures for
sharing the country’s oil resources.

“We are in a standstill and things are paralyzed,” said Adel Abdul
Mahdi, a prominent Shiite politician and former vice president of
Iraq, describing the process of political reconciliation among Iraq’s
three main factions, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. “We are going from bad
to worse.”

A surprising number of Iraqis refuse to believe that the Americans are
really leaving, the effect of a conspiratorial mind-set developed over
years living under the violent and repressive dictatorship of Mr.
Hussein, and a view of history informed by the Crusades, colonialism
and other perceived injustices at the hands of the West.