In 10 years, the vast U.S. embassy in Baghdad will either be a testament to American triumph, or futility.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

“Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

“The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lines about a long-forgotten ruler’s monument to himself come unavoidably to mind the first time one visits the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The vast, fortified complex is sterile and austere, not the open-door ambiance for which Americans like to be known. Congressional funding didn’t cover landscaping, so where gardens and grass should be, there’s only dirt. In Iraq’s hot, dry climate, it turns to dust, which blows into the eyes of anyone walking through the compound. At night, when sodium lamps illuminate the red brick construction, it has an eerie feel, like a scene out of a sci-fi movie

The compound exudes power, but also fear. It was built during the heaviest phase of fighting for an immense sum – $740 million – with specs set by pessimists who assumed mortars would be fired at it for years. The cafeteria has massive bulletproof glass doors, an indoor gym is visible behind bulletproof glass as is an indoor swimming pool, and there are housing and offices for 1,000.

But who will be occupying the new U.S. Embassy complex in 10 years? Will there be new tenants? Will grass and bushes ever be planted or will it be left to the wind: a center of Western presence in Iraq or a monument to the still inexplicable decision to come here and assert what some thought to be limitless power.

Baghdad is a place of many questions, but none so trenchant as those put to me by an Iraqi journalist: Why are you here? You overthrew a tyrannical government but then you demolished the security structure, so you had to stay. Was it oil? Did you hope to take charge of the region? What did you have in mind? And what are your plans?

There’s no ready answer to these questions except the last. U.S. plans are now clear: according to the status of forces agreement just approved by the Iraqi cabinet, U.S. forces will be completely gone in three years.

The terms of that agreement are testimony to the improvement in security. It’s not safe – the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which sprang up after the U.S. invasion in 2003, can still stage suicide bombings – but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as it was.

Yet, five and one-half years later, the country of 24 million is still hopelessly broken. Electricity is being distributed – but not by the state. Instead, private entrepreneurs have set up generators and sell it by the ampere. Baghdad is a city of many sophisticated people but no storm drains. You expect construction cranes everywhere, but instead there are traffic jams, caused largely by police checkpoints. A visitor longs to explore byways and mix with locals but the word from security experts is to speak no foreign language and keep a low profile.

Will three more years of a U.S. troop presence restore commerce and kickstart the economy?

It’s hard to imagine.

The current security situation is the outcome of changed circumstances over the last two years. They are:

n The U.S. adoption of counter-insurgency tactics, in which U.S. forces now run joint outposts with the Iraqi army and bring security to the population.

n The daring spring offensives ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which took on the Mahdi militias in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City slums, aided in both instances by timely U.S. military support.

n The subsequent order by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr to his followers to lay down their arms.

n The decision of Sunni insurgents to form the Sons of Iraq, U.S.-supported militias determined to suppress the al-Qaeda in Iraq forces.

The major exception is Mosul, which is anything but calm, and Diyala province, where differences between the central government and the autonomy-seeking Kurdish minority have led to at least one confrontation.

The first big test of the current calm is under way. The Iraqi government is committed to integrating one-fifth of the Sons of Iraq into the security forces and hiring or training the remaining members while paying them monthly salaries.

“I spoke with the prime minister. He is serious about making this work,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey W. Hammond, the commanding general of the Multinational Division in Baghdad.

The Iraqi army says it’s moving right along. According to Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, 51,133 militia members were now being processed. And a Sunni Sheikh in Baghdad confirmed the process is moving forward in Baghdad.

“The Americans have played a good role and stood by the Sahwas,” he said, referring to the militias. “They have paid the salaries for months, trained them, given them weapons, and have pressured the Iraqi government into accepting them and incorporating them into their forces.”

That doesn’t translate into an efficient handover everywhere, but it does suggest goodwill, engendered by relentless lobbying by the U.S. military and civilian representatives.

The second test is whether Maliki can maintain the tenuous standoff with Sadr and prevent a revival of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia. As many as 10,000 militia members fled to Iran, where Sadr spokesman Baha al-Araji points out they are under the control of the Iranian government, a tool Iran could employ at a time of its choosing.

A third test is whether al-Qaeda in Iraq remains underground, severely weakened, and prevented from mounting more attacks against civilians. Here there are differing perspectives. Sheikh Ali Hatem pronounces al-Qaeda Iraq to be “defeated in our regions.” U.S. officials disagree. “Al-Qaeda is degraded, not defeated,” says a top U.S. official.

Then there are the more profound tests:

Will Shiites rely on their clerics to guide their politics, and will Sunnis tolerate that, or will Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites view themselves more as Arabs as opposed to the Persians across the gulf with designs to influence Iraq’s future?

And if the Arabs unite, where will the Kurds fit in? Will Maliki operate on bravado from his successful gambles in Basra and Sadr City and assume his security force strong enough to operate without U.S. support?

Ironically, the cause of uncertainty now is how to structure troop withdrawal. The status of forces accord, could prove the undoing of the security climate by dramatically changing relations with the United States after a period of gross abuses by U.S. forces, from Abu Ghraib to impunity by private contractors, like Blackwater.

The new accord puts Iraq in charge of detentions and lifts the immunity of the private firms. It sets a timetable for U.S. force withdrawal and terms for restoring Iraq’s sovereignty. The accord has been approved by the Iraqi cabinet and Iran, initially opposed, is willing to let it go forward. Only the Iraqi parliament still must act.

U.S. concessions in the SOFA implicitly acknowledge the question, why are we here? There were no weapons of mass destruction, and almost certainly at Iraq’s insistence, the United States is now forbidden to import any.

In addition, the United States cannot attack Iran from Iraq without Iraq agreeing. The argument seems tenuous that the United States is in Iraq to claim the country’s oil, for U.S. suppliers will buy Iraqi oil – or from any other supplier – at market prices.

If American aim was gaining power in the region, the outcome has only enormously strengthened Iran. Was the aim spreading democracy? The Bush administration has backed from this brave campaign, and there is now no doubt the United States can live with an Iraq governed on a model other than that of Washington or Westminster.

The plausible explanation for staying is the one no American spokesman will admit: guilt and obligation. Since we destroyed the place, we want to leave with honor. That is actually a worthy reason for sticking around.

And the new U.S. Embassy could be a fitting monument to that ambition.

Roy Gutman is the McClatchy Washington Bureau’s foreign editor.


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