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ARAB WORLD: Press reactions to U.S. withdrawal from Iraq reveal resentment, skepticism

September 1, 2010 |  9:46 am

Iraqi american The prevailing sentiment in the Arabic press as the U.S. combat presence in Iraq formally comes to an end seems to be that the combat troops may have left Iraq, but the damage is done.

In a highly anticipated speech Tuesday night, President Obama announced the end to America's combat mission in Iraq but stopped short of declaring victory.

"Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq's future is not," the president said. 

The U.S. will maintain about 50,000 troops to train and assist Iraqi forces until the end of 2011, when all American troops are scheduled to leave.

But after seven years of war and more than 100,000 lives lost, many Arab commentators are skeptical of White House promises. Security in Iraq remains precarious, and the political infrastructure is weak, as evidenced by the fact that a government has yet to be formed five months after elections.

"The Iraqi scene on the eve of the American withdrawal is still troubled on several fronts: security, political and humanitarian," Said Shihabi wrote in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab paper al-Quds al-Arabi (Arabic link).

"There is an ongoing debate over whether the withdrawal is real and Washington is sincere in its intention to liberate Iraq completely and cease to meddle in its affairs, or whether the U.S. merely seeks to control Iraqi resources and dominate its military, oil and foreign policies."

Shihabi went on to criticize the U.S. for attempting to remake Iraq in its own image by pushing Iraq to distance itself from Iran and make peace with Israel. He also cited American reticence to allow the Iraqi army to negotiate its own critical arms contracts with countries including China and Russia and the continuing controversy over foreign oil companies, especially in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.

Thus, he concluded, America's commitment to rebuild Iraq as a sovereign nation should be judged by Iraq's ability to address the current humanitarian crisis and determine its own military and foreign policies.

Sateh Noureddine, writing in the Lebanese daily As-Safir (Arabic link), was even more skeptical of the withdrawal.

"Aug. 31, 2010, will not go down in history, for as long as a single American soldier remains in Iraq the occupation continues and its projects will remain in effect," he wrote. "It's just another day when the U.S. relieves itself of many of its Iraqi burdens, leaving the Iraqis and the entire region drowning in critical questions and uncertainty."

Analyst Paul Salem argued in the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper the National that by toppling Saddam's government, the U.S. set in motion a domino effect that led to a weakening of its own position and that of its Arab allies, as well as a rise in sectarian tensions and new regional order in which Iran and Turkey wield more influence.

"Far from transforming the region into an oasis of American influence led by pro-Western liberal elites on the Western and central European model, the war strengthened radicals in the region and in places reinforced the hold of authoritarian regimes," Salem wrote.

"The Iraq war did indeed bring about a new Middle East, but not the one that the neo-conservatives of the Bush administration had envisioned. The leaders and peoples of the region, left with the consequences of this war, must grapple with its outcomes and effects, and look for ways to build regional stability and cooperation in the face of fast-moving events," he concluded.

Abdel Aziz Hays, writing for the website (Arabic link) of the popular satellite station Al Jazeera, accused the U.S. of replacing corrupt political elite with another while revisiting past experiments by foreign powers, especially Britain, to install their own democratically elected allies.

"There is a type of void that is born of the freedom that comes with democracy, and the authority that follows democratization tends to take control of this void and fill it for its own sake," he wrote.

"It is true that the Iraqi government is more diverse today, but this diversity resembles that of the government at the start of the previous democracy, which was quickly taken over by an [externally] supported elite."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Iraqi security forces are shown alongside U.S. troops as the U.S. combat mission in Iraq was declared over. Credit: AFP / Getty