Is the war in Iraq over?
“In essence, Obama has declared the war in Iraq all but over,” the story said, noting the Democratic presidential candidate’s vow to shift troops away from Iraq to the worsening conflict in Afghanistan.
At a time when U.S. military statistics show less violence in Iraq than at any time since early 2004, it’s worth asking the question — is the war over?
It is not over for Iraqis in some northern provinces, where al Qaeda militants remain active. And there may be more days like last Monday when four suicide bombers killed nearly 60 people in Baghdad and the city of Kirkuk.
But in Baghdad, something dramatic has happened in the past couple of months. There is an air of hope and even optimism despite the occasional major bombing in the capital.
I asked some Iraqis if they thought the war was over.
Absolutely said five friends, all men aged between 19 and 22 who were sitting on a bench in a park alongside the Tigris River just before dusk last weekend. Scores of families were at the park, children playing on swings or flying kites.
“There is rebuilding, people are getting jobs. A year ago I couldn’t go to university because militias would check your ID,” said student Ahmed Ali, referring to the chilling militia practice of finding out who was Shi’ite and who was Sunni.
“Now, I just go there,” he added with a shrug.
Mohammed Radhi, 45, was enjoying a picnic with his wife and four children at the park. He said much hinged on whether local elections — scheduled for October but which seem destined to be delayed by political bickering — were held peacefully.
“It’s certainly better now but we have elections so our security will depend on the politicians. It’s up to them to decide if the war is over,” said Radhi.
Baghdad still looks like a city at war.
Concrete blast walls up to 12-feet (3.5 metres) high snake through entire neighbourhoods, encircle markets and government buildings. Iraqi troops man countless checkpoints. U.S. military Humvees rumble through the city. Even the park has checkpoints.
But Iraqi officials now talk about investment as much as security operations.
Kuwaiti investors want to build a multi-billion dollar housing and tourist complex in the southern city of Najaf. A foundation stone was laid this month for a luxury hotel in Baghdad, albeit in the fortified Green Zone government compound.
Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, derided as an ineffective leader only a year ago, has won praise.
The main Sunni Arab bloc has returned to the government after a year-long boycott and last week Maliki hosted Obama in Baghdad before jetting off to meet German and Italian leaders as well as Pope Benedict.
The Bush administration haslonged for this sort of progress in Iraq. The flipside has been growing Iraqi confidence.
At Baghdad’s insistence, Washington has accepted the idea of a “time horizon” for U.S. combat troops to leave. Maliki says he hopes U.S. combat forces could be out of Iraq in 2010 — roughly in line with Obama’s promised timetable for withdrawal.
A lot might still go wrong in Iraq.
The elections could spark violence. Al Qaeda in Iraq might be on the ropes but it has regenerated itself before. Sunni Arab insurgents who switched sides to fight al Qaeda might come into open conflict with Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated security forces.
For now, Iraqis at the park by the Tigris River reflect on the possibility that the worst could be over.
“To see everyone out and about like this makes you feel good about the country,” said Hassan Qado, 22, a policeman.