US declares an end to combat operations in Iraq

President Obama declares an end to combat operations in Iraq. Israeli settlers to resume settlement building in Hebron ahead of peace talks. Pakistan blocks British military aid in flood relief efforts. All this and more in today's briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
1 September 2010

Seven years after allied troops invaded Iraq, US President Barack Obama declared an end to the US war in Iraq last night, telling the American nation that he was honouring his campaign pledge to stop the war he had opposed from the start.

In a televised address from the Oval office, Obama announced: 'Operation Iraqi Freedom is over and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.'

Obama added that all US troops will leave Iraq by the end of next year, bringing to an end one of the most divisive chapters in American foreign policy.

The openSecurity verdict: President Obama's speech avoided answering the most crucial questions of whether the war made America safer, and if it was worth the 'huge price' America paid. More than 4,400 US troops have lost their lives, and more than 30,000 have been wounded over the course of the last seven years. The war effort has cost the US taxpayer $750 billion. There are also more intangible costs including the diversion of resources and focus from Afghanistan, an intractable problem now facing the US and its allies.

The end of America's combat missions in Iraq does not of course mean the end of US presence in Iraq. US soldiers will continue to play a crucial advisory role in maintaining security and in building the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. However with the political stalemate between two rival blocs headed by the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the country's future remains uncertain.

The formation of the new government could still take 'four to six to eight weeks' according to the US General Ray Odierno. The prospect of another election looms large if negotiations break down. Although the Iraqi national elections in March were seen as successful, they were marred with controversies over recounts, disqualifications and sectarian tensions. Underscoring the uncertainty that lays ahead, the US General in Iraq, Ray Odierno, told the New York Times this week: “If we get the government formed, I think we’re O.K... If we don’t, I don’t know.”

The next sixteen months leading up to the expected withdrawal of all US troops will be a severe test of Obama's policy. The US may be drawn back into military operations in Iraq if sectarian tension manifests itself in violence. Already, neoconservatives and proponents of the war such as Paul Wolfowitz have contended that the US must maintain a long-term military presence in Iraq. Writing in the New York Times this week, Wolfowitz compares Iraq to South Korea and suggests that a continued presence could contain Iran, in much the same way as the US presence in South Korea acts as a deterrant for North Korea and China.

For now, the dominant consideration is whether it is too soon to withdraw from Iraq. The answer to this question is heavily reliant on how the political negotiations between rival blocs will pan out in the coming weeks, and whether the Iraqi security forces will have the resources and training to rise to the challenge of providing security across the country.

Israeli settlers to resume settlement building in Hebron ahead of peace talks

Israeli settlers in Hebron have said they will resume settlement construction today in defiance of the Israeli government's freeze on settlement building in the West Bank. The announcement by settlement leaders comes only hours after a suspected Hamas gunman killed four Israeli settlers on the outskirts of Hebron, potentially jeopardising negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington on Wednesday.

The partial and temporary freeze on settlement construction, agreed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last year, is expected to come to an end on 26 September. Ahead of peace talks in Washington, the Palestinians have said they will walk out of the talks unless the Israeli's agree to extend the freeze.

Yesterday, the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad 'unveiled a detailed blueprint' for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2011, which he, along with other Palestinian officials, say depends on how the Israeli's envisage implementing a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that Israel would 'be willing to hand over parts of Jerusalem in peace talks with the Palestinians.' The comments could signal a willingness to divide the city of Jerusalem in any final peace deal between the two sides.

Pakistan blocks British military aid in flood relief efforts

Pakistan's intelligence services have 'blocked' an offer of British military aid for flood victims, according to the Telegraph. The on-going spat between Britain and Pakistan stems from the British Prime Minister's remarks that the Pakistani government has not done enough to curb the activities of some armed Islamist groups. On Wednesday however, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visited flood-hit areas in Pakistan, pledging continued emergency aid and support to the country's flood victims in the long run.

Elsewhere, at least 45 people have been killed in an airstrike in the north-western region of Khyber. Pakistani jets pounded targets in the Tirah valley, an apparent stronghold for Taliban militants. Insurgents in the Khyber region have repeatedly attacked NATO supply vehicles heading to Afghanistan. The Pakistani authorities say they targeted an illegal FM radio station and eight vehicles preparing for suicide attacks in the latest airstrike but conceded that the death toll includes families of militants as well as other civilians in the vicinity.

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