As America's war ends, Iraq's begins

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BAGHDAD, Iraq —  American officers occupying Saddam Hussein’s former palace during the 2007 U.S. military surge used to joke about changing its name from Camp Victory to Camp Cautiously Optimistic, or Camp Acceptable Level of Violence.

As Gen. Ray Odierno, who helped to engineer the surge, relinquished command of U.S. forces Wednesday in a ceremony marking the end of the seven-year-long combat mission here as well as his departure, the victory speeches were markedly constrained.

In a war that has changed the United States and its military almost as much as the country it invaded, the realization seems to have sunk in that victory is much easier to declare than it will be to define.

“We kept our promise – a promise made to the American people and the people of Iraq by drawing down our forces under 50,000, and we’re on track to remove all of our troops next year,” Vice President Joe Biden told the military men and women, diplomats and Iraqi military leaders crammed into a flag-draped marble rotunda.

For a U.S. administration trying to extricate itself from a controversial war, that is the promise that matters most.

Contrasting with the gravitas of the ceremony, Biden’s odd opening joke seemed a sign of how conflicted the uncertain legacy of this war has left the administration.

“Ladies and gentleman, the last several years every time I’ve been in this old palace I can’t help but think of the irony that we are here today occupying a palace, for a noble reason, that was once occupied by Saddam Hussein,” he said, in a remark certain to have puzzled the Iraqi generals present.

Giant American and Iraqi flags hung from the marble banisters surrounding a colored glass dome with each panel still bearing the initials in Arabic of Saddam Hussein. Although Saddam was found under  Odierno’s watch, and executed and buried, his legacy has proved equally difficult to erase.

Odierno was a chief architect of the military surge in 2007 that helped end the almost unbelievable levels of violence of the civil war. But the strains on this country run even deeper – evidenced by the inability six months after national elections for political leaders to form a new government.

After the first two years of the war, when the existence of the insurgency was publicly ignored and U.S. spokesmen tried to spin even fuel shortages into good news, there has been an increasing recognition that this has always been a tougher fight than the United States and its allies thought it would be.

The military has almost always known that.

These were the soldiers and marines brought in for a conventional war against a conventional army that turned into the most complicated and protracted fighting since Vietnam. The ones who found themselves in a foreign country without either the tools of armored vehicles or interpreters to understand the language.

Perhaps no one more than Odierno exemplifies the changes commanders have gone through. As commander of the 4th Infantry Division in 2003 in Saddam’s hometown, near Tikrit, Odierno's troops used the most heavy-handed of techniques later blamed for fueling the insurgency, even as special forces under his command captured Saddam.

As Corps commander, he helped design and implement the gamble that was the military surge, with tens of thousands of troops brought in to drive out Al Qaeda and Shiite militias and retake territory for Iraqi security forces to hold – all at huge cost. Instead of focusing only on capturing and killing insurgents, young soldiers and officers were suddenly tasked with winning the support of Iraqis.

“The general crafted the tactics American forces and their allies used to fight a counterinsurgency campaign,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the audience on Wednesday. Without his operational command then “we would be facing a far grimmer situation outside these walls today.”

Over the past year, Odierno oversaw many of those troops going home again – 50,000 of them with thousands of tons of equipment that have marked the official end of the combat era.

For that and his obvious passion, he commands immense loyalty from the uniformed men and women who on Wednesday gave him a thunderous standing ovation after a speech in which he talked about sacrifice and the need for "strategic patience" in Iraq.

That strategic patience will be necessary to help prop up a government, improve the Iraqi Army and police and help secure the borders – all while the clock ticks to the end of 2011 when the last 49,000 American troops are to be out of Iraq.

It was Gates, who has served two very different presidents – the one who took America to war and the one trying to find a way out of it – who pointed out that no matter how the war ends, it will be forever judged by how it began.

“The problem with this war for, I think, many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid – that is, Saddam having weapons of mass destruction,” he said during a visit this week to troops in Ramadi, once one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq and still far from a walk in the park.

Many of Ramadi’s problems are those of other cities as well – that seven years into the war there are still only a few hours of electricity a day, no new jobs and an Iraqi Army and police force that have made huge strides but are still under almost constant threat.

“I don't think you're going to be able to put a mark on the wall or a day on the calendar and say we won,” said Brig. Gen. Rob Baker, whose deployments to Baghdad in 2003 and again this year have book ended the war.

After emphasizing during the surge that there were no purely military solutions to Iraq’s problems, the remaining challenges – still euphemistically referred to as opportunities by a few U.S. officials – are even more complicated.

“Our goal is not only a secure Iraq but an economically prosperous, and stable one as well,” said Biden, in referring to the transition from a U.S. military presence here to a civilian one.

Seven years ago the idea of that stability was that toppling a dictator and instilling democracy would spread to the rest of the Middle East.

“The Americans gave us the opportunity to build a functioning decent democracy in the heart of the Islamic world,” said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government. “At the end of the day it is up to us - we need to really live up to our responsibilities. What I see today five months after the election leaves a lot to be desired by the Iraqi political elite.”

It's now been almost six months since Iraqis took democracy for a test run by going out and voting. In what has become a series of small victories, one large but relatively modest one would be seeing a new Iraqi government take shape.