No, the U.S. is not leaving Iraq

Thousands of armed U.S. private contractors will be based in the country, and the potential for violence is real

Topics: Iraq, ,

No, the U.S. is not leaving IraqA private military contractor gestures to colleagues flying ovehead in a helicopter as they secure the scene of a roadside bomb attack in Baghdad. (Credit: Associated Press)

In a speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., Wednesday, President Obama declared that the war in Iraq is over.

“I’ve come to speak to you about the end of the war in Iraq,” he told gathered troops. “Over the last few months, the final work of leaving Iraq has been done. Dozens of bases with American names that housed thousands of American troops have been closed down or turned over to the Iraqis.  Thousands of tons of equipment have been packed up and shipped out. Tomorrow, the colors of United States Forces-Iraq — the colors you fought under — will be formally cased in a ceremony in Baghdad.”

All the specifics were true. But what about Obama’s claim that the war has come to a end?

The truth is more complicated. It turns out the Obama administration is leaving behind a huge contingent from the State Department along with thousands of armed private contractors. The possibility for violence between Americans and Iraqis is very real.

To dig into the details, I spoke to Spencer Ackerman, who has been covering the issue closely for Wired’s Danger Room.

The administration is saying the war is over. Is the Defense Department leaving anyone behind? 

There’s going to be something called the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq that exists after the troop pullout on Dec. 31. That’s going to be under the auspices of the U.S. embassy, so there’s not going to be a military command in Iraq. It’s going to be a pretty small, 150-person office that will do training — things like helping the Iraqi air force understand how to operate the F-16s we’re selling them. That’s a pretty typical relationship for countries who have bought American military hardware.

What about the State Department?

State is going to leave behind the largest embassy that it has on the planet. All told, there are going to be 18,000 people who work for this embassy. Very few of those will be diplomats. Others will be American civil service workers. A great number will be non-Iraqi contractors who do things like the laundry, mail services, cleaning, etc. Then there’s going to be a substantial component of armed private security contractors. Depending on whose numbers you believe, there will be 3,500 to 5,500 of them.

What is the mission of the State Department there? 



It will be different than a typical embassy in the sense that Iraq is still a more dangerous place than most places the U.S. operates. There are more fortresslike consulates around the country than is typical. The mission is in theory like any other State Department mission: You manage commercial ties; you deal with bilateral political issues as they arise; you try to get favorable security cooperation. In reality, it’s going to be way different than usual. Iraq is going to be a battleground — using that term colloquially — between the U.S. and Iran. A hugely important mission of the U.S. ambassador in Iraq will be to try to get Iraq’s foreign policy not to back Iran. Look at the recent Arab League vote to condemn the regime in Syria, for example. Iraq abstained from that vote because Iran was upset about the condemnation of one of its proxies. So the U.S. will try to weaken Iran’s diplomatic ties to Iraq.

On the mercenary — or armed private contractor — front, do we know who these people are going to be and what they’re going to be up to? 

One is a big security company that’s been in Iraq since 2005 called Triple Canopy. Another is called Global. Another is SOC Inc. Interestingly, the CEO of Blackwater — now renamed Academi — told me on Monday they’re going to get their license back; they lost it after the Nisour Square massacre. They don’t have a contract to do work in Iraq now, but they want to do it again. Beyond that, we know nearly nothing. The State Department has stonewalled even the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction from finding out basic information like what the rules of engagement for the contractors will be. How close can Iraqis get to U.S. diplomats before these guys can open fire? I don’t know the answer to that. Most members of Congress don’t know the answer to that. Pretty much no one who doesn’t work in the State Department knows the answer to that.

The contract is for diplomatic protection. You’re not supposed to see Triple Canopy employees, say, go out on raids. Fifty-six days before the U.S. withdrawal, the State Department also put out a contract for aviation support. That’s an indicator of how this is being put together on the fly. It’s also an indication that the State Department is contracting for missions as sensitive as Medevac or close air support.

Do you think we’re going to see spasms of violence between Americans and Iraqis post-Dec. 31?

I think it’s inevitable. Look at it from the perspective of an Iranian Quds Force operative. You know you want to frustrate the U.S. in Iraq; and you know that Iraqis are burning U.S. flags in celebration of the withdrawal. That’s a tremendous opportunity for Iran right there. Because if you also know that there are these armed contractors helping diplomats get from point A to point B, you win if you provoke them into violence. And it’s really easy to place an IED on a road or to open fire on a convoy. Then if there are Americans in Iraq opening fire on Iraqis — after the Iraqi leaders have said Americans are gone — that’s a major propaganda win for Iran. This is a really foreseeable disaster.

Another thing worth pointing out is that Leon Panetta has been saying recently that there are 1,000 Iraqis who are al-Qaida loyalists. If that’s true, Iraq is by far host to the largest al-Qaida presence in the world. It’s really hard to believe the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command won’t find a way to go after those people. And remember, as Mary Wheeler has pointed out, Congress has not rescinded the authorization for military force in Iraq.

So in your estimation, is the war actually over?

It’s going to shift into a more sotto voce form. It’s going to be a lot subtler. But it most certainly is continuing. Just because we don’t have a U.S. troop presence anymore or a formal U.S. chain of command anymore, does not mean that the war is over.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>