March 19 was the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, but no one is paying much attention.

Instead, our attention is fixated on bank bailouts and AIG bonuses. There are still 142,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, but there is amazingly little fuss about them. U.S. casualties are down, and most troops will be withdrawn by the summer of 2010, with a reserve of 35,000 to 40,000 remaining through 2011.

And yet, although the violence has plummeted, bombs still go off in Baghdad, Iraqi civilians still die, and some American soldiers do, too. As our economy staggers, the issue of U.S. troops is bound to resurface. So how should we view our continued presence in Iraq and President Obama’s plans to get the troops home?

The surge strategy of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker was aimed at reducing violence in Iraq to create space for political reconciliation. However, Iraqi politics are still a disjointed work in progress. And – I stress this – we do not know how this political story will end.

There is, however, some good news. My last visit to Iraq, in December, convinced me that the civil war is over. Iraqis of all sects were exhausted by the killing, and sectarian militias no longer have strong backing in their respective communities.

That doesn’t mean an end to violence. Al-Qaida remnants will still try to provoke sectarian revenge with suicide bombs, and there has been an uptick of revenge killings and criminal murders.

But the threat of all-out civil strife that hung over the country in 2006 and 2007 has passed. As for the much-discussed risk of battles between the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters, I think this danger is exaggerated, despite tensions in the north. When such a clash loomed last year, both sides pulled back from the brink.

Iraq’s provincial elections on Jan. 31 showed most voters want a united country. The Shiite Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which did best at the polls, stood for centralized government and against soft partition. So much for the idea that the answer to Iraq’s problems was division into three regions – one each for Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites.

The Kurds already have a special region that is accepted by most Iraqis. But the powerful party that called for an equivalent Shiite region did badly in the balloting. That party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, known as ISCI, is closely identified with Iran, which may indicate its former supporters were rejecting Tehran’s tutelage.

Another reason for ISCI’s poor showing, informed Iraqis tell me, is that Iraqi voters rejected all Islamic parties, Shiite and Sunni. Even Maliki, whose Dawa party is nominally religious, ran as a nationalist and downplayed any religious theme.

“The Iraqi people are fed up with religious parties,” I was told by Zuhair Humadi, an adviser on higher education to Maliki. When Humadi recently visited Baghdad’s famous Mutanabi Street, which is lined with bookstores, his favorite bookseller told him that sales of religious books had plummeted. Sales of such books exploded in the years after the American invasion, but “the mood has shifted,” Humadi said.

So the Iraqi people seem to be groping for a secular politics that will unite them. They are desperate for officials who are less corrupt and can deliver electricity and jobs.

And they clearly want strong leadership (many Iraqis told me they would welcome back a benign dictator). Maliki’s popularity soared when he cracked down on Shiite militias in the south and rejected Kurdish territorial claims.

The downside is that no Iraqi leader has yet emerged with the talent and ability to deliver what Iraqis seek. Maliki, who is impatient with democratic niceties and parliament, hasn’t delivered services or cleaned up corruption. His Dawa party is insular and inept, and other parties are internally divided.

Meantime, with oil prices low, Iraq lacks the income to create jobs and confront massive unemployment. The country is still fragile as it takes small steps forward. It is not the democratic model of neoconservative dreams, but it is groping for a political structure that suits its needs.

That’s why I think it makes sense for Obama to backload his troop withdrawals, waiting until after December’s national elections to speed up the pace. Iraqis have made sufficient political progress that it makes sense to give them time to consolidate it. We owe them that much after taking their country apart.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.