On Monday, President Obama marked the impending end of the war in Iraq, which began nearly nine years ago, saying the last U.S. troops are leaving at the end of 2011 "with their heads held high." Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a joint press conference, vowed to work together to keep the country stable, and outlined a broad agenda for post-war cooperation. But it seems clear that history will judge the war based on what comes next. What will happen in Iraq when the U.S. military is gone? Here, four predictions:
1. Iraq will be an unreliable ally plagued by violence
The U.S. lost nearly 4,500 soldiers and spent a trillion dollars of borrowed money to get rid of Saddam Hussein and turn around Iraq, says Ed Husain at CNN. Still, we're leaving behind an Iraqi military that is "not yet ready to contain the probable outbreak of sectarian violence." And Maliki has made it clear that he doesn't support Obama's call for a new government in Syria, aligning himself with the mullahs in Iran instead. So while the Iraqi government will remain happy to accept U.S. help in the future, we know that our sacrifices in blood and treasure have not won us the new ally we hoped for in the Middle East.
2. Iran will cozy up to Iraq
The Shiite theocracy in Iran has already tried to gain influence in Iraq through investments and charity work to help Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, says Scott Peterson at The Christian Science Monitor. As the U.S. backs away, Iran will "fill any 'vacuum' with its own influence." Tehran is already trying to get a hardline Iranian cleric — who is "very close to Iran's absolute ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei" — installed in one of Iraq's holiest cities, Najaf. "It may not succeed. But the effort is a window into how Shiite Iran may try to exercise soft power in Iraq in years to come."
3. Iraqis might rise to the occasion
The war and its aftermath have left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, says Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation, and "an entire generation of children is scarred and traumatized." The country's infrastructure and industries are still a shambles. Iraqis are fed up with being dominated by the U.S. Maliki, a Shiite fundamentalist, is trying to build an authoritarian regime friendly to Iran, but most Iraqis won't want their powerful neighbor telling them what to do, either. "With luck, Iraqi nationalism will reassert itself vis-à-vis Iran," and the country will decide what happens next on its own.
4. As U.S. soldiers move out, business executives will move in
America isn't really leaving Iraq, says Lionel C. Johnson at Politico. We're just going to "shift from a military collaboration to a relationship driven by economic engagement." The groundwork is there: U.S. business activity in Iraq reached nearly $3 billion in the first six months of 2011, up almost $1 billion from a year earlier. Continuing to build those commercial ties will help "forge a stronger civil society in Iraq connected by shared values."