April 9 marked the eighth year of the fall of Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis marched in the streets of Iraqi cities -- from Mosul to Basrah, from Baghdad to Fallujah -- to protest the ongoing military occupation. Although Americans often regard March 19 as the day marking the war's beginning, Iraqis, in general, don't think much of that date. From their perspective, the war did not start in March of 2003. As far as Iraqis are concerned, the war began 20 years ago, in January 1991, when the bombs started falling on Iraq and continued through the 13 years of sanctions and air strikes, which where followed by eight years of military occupation beginning on April 9, 2003.
Protests on April 9 are not new to Iraq. Every year, Iraqis take to the streets, in numbers as strong as this year's turnouts, to mark the day. This year's protests were similar to past demonstrations in the sense that they went unnoticed by the U.S. mainstream media, but it was different for Iraqis because they expect this to be the last year they live under the U.S. military occupation. The 2008 security agreement outlined a clear plan with two deadlines for a complete U.S. military departure. The first deadline required all American combat forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities, towns and villages by June 30, 2009. That withdrawal was implemented on time, give or take. The second deadline, which the majority of Iraqis are watching very closely, requires all U.S. troops (combat and noncombat) to leave Iraq before December 31, 2011. This deadline also requires all U.S. military bases to be shut down or handed over to the Iraqi government.
What made this week's demonstrations even more intense is the visit that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top military officials paid to Iraq last week in what was seen as an attempt to delay or cancel the December 31 deadline. The massive demonstrations condemned any attempts to delay the U.S. departure and even threatened violence if the U.S. stayed longer. Muqtada Al-Sadr, the prominent nationalist Shia cleric, told his followers that they should go back to armed resistance and attack the U.S. forces if they stayed after the end of the year. Harith Al-Dari, from the nationalist Sunni group the Association of Muslim Scholars, sent a similar letter to the Iraqi people demanding that the U.S. stick to the current deadline for withdrawal.
Considering the recent Arab revolutions and uprisings, the U.S. government is playing with fire in Iraq; any attempts to delay or cancel the United States' complete departure will most likely spark a nationwide revolt against the very unpopular U.S. military presence there. Iraqis had already been demonstrating in the streets of Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities for a week as of this writing. So far most of the protests have focused on demands for better services, but if the U.S. government breaks its promises and tries to extend the military occupation beyond the agreed-upon deadline, demonstrators are likely to redirect their energies to their outrage at the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
The rumor is that this time the U.S. is trying to extend its military presence without approval by Iraq's legislators. If this is the case, it will most likely be the end of the Iraqi political system; it would be the last straw that would destroy the Iraqi government's legitimacy and end the credibility of the country's political and electoral systems. It would push many Iraqis who have joined the government to boycott the political process and resort again to violence.
But even if there was no threat of violence, I think a timely withdrawal is the right thing to do. The U.S. military occupation of Iraq has not been for the good of either country. It causes death and destruction and continues to destabilize Iraq and delegitimize its government. Extending the occupation will discredit President Obama after his repeated promises to bring all the troops back home and abide by the December 31 deadline. Continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq will also destroy what's left of Obama's political capital in the Arab and Muslim worlds.