Tuesday was the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from major Iraqi cities. This clear line in the sand must provide some relief to many Americans, whose sacrifice has been extraordinary. But as the United States shifts its attention from Iraq to Afghanistan and other issues of grave importance, none of us can be lulled into believing that Iraq is a “mission accomplished.” That sense of security is simply false. June 30 is not a historical endpoint to be celebrated by political philosophers; it is the beginning of a highly uncertain chapter in Iraqi democracy and self-governance.
Recent painful events here demonstrate the challenges ahead. In the past month, we had the sad task of burying one of Iraq’s leading moderate politicians, Harith al-Ubaidi, who was brutally shot at a mosque June 12, probably at the hands of al-Qaida. Large-scale violent attacks such as suicide bombings are down dramatically overall, but as two tragic incidents last week showed, they still occur and still sow chaos and despair. Countries in our region continue to attempt to influence our internal politics to their advantage; the continuing hold on power of the regime in Iran, for example, means continued Iranian support for sympathetic parties and groups in Iraq. Our country’s trade minister resigned in May amid allegations of corruption that is reportedly so widespread in Iraq as to be on the scale of a second insurgency. Just recently, I was forced to take action against police officers accused of violating the rights of prisoners.
Corruption and violence are not relics of an overthrown regime in Iraq that exist behind an imaginary line marked “June 30.” They are threats Iraq must fight every day, now largely on our own.
The good news is that we are off to a promising start. As of mid-June, high-profile violence in Iraq was down nearly 60 percent from its peak – and May’s level of terrorist violence was the lowest since 2003 – largely because of the improved capacity and skills of our 500,000-strong police force. After the U.S. troop withdrawals, Iraqi police will take charge of security in most major population centers, including 70 percent of Baghdad. The Interior Ministry will be fully responsible for security in seven provinces, and eight others will be our joint responsibility with the Defense Ministry. The Iraqi army, under the Defense Ministry, will support the police in the provinces that include Iraq’s three main cities of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul; in the predominantly Sunni Arab western province of Anbar; in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces north of the capital; and in Karbala to its south.
We are working on more than security. My ministry alone has fired more than 60,000 employees on corruption charges and concerns. In June we announced that more than 40 police officers would face charges after an investigation into prison abuse found that inmates had been incarcerated without warrants and that the rights of other inmates had been violated.
Looking beyond the policing and anti-corruption efforts, ordinary Iraqis will perhaps have the strongest say yet in how their future takes hold. We are already looking well past June 30 to Jan. 30, the date of our next national elections. Many parties, including my own, will field candidates. But this democratic process is not an end in itself. The mere act of voting does not secure our democracy, for it can easily fall into the hands of separatist or foreign-controlled parties. Each successive election here has been a tug of war for our national survival; perhaps none will be more momentous than 2010.
Our choices are between tribalism and nationalism, and everything in between; parties backed by foreign powers and homegrown grass-roots movements; secularists and Islamists. These choices will set in motion Iraq’s rendezvous with destiny.
If the coming weeks and months are reasonably peaceful, if progress continues against corruption and basic services continue to be restored, we will have taken a huge step forward. With next year’s general election and American troops long gone from our cities, Iraqis should come close, at last, to ruling ourselves.
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