After more than seven years, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq ended on August 31.  The nature of the U.S. commitment to Iraq is now transforming from a military mission to a civilian effort led by American diplomats.  Ambassador Christopher Hill, having just completed his tour serving as America’s top diplomat in Iraq, reflected on Iraq’s transition, politics, current situation and future prospects. 

Event Summary

After a seven-year military presence, the U.S. shifts to a civilian-led effort in Iraq, with some 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country.

Retiring U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill spoke at the United States Institute of Peace on August 18, 2010 about this major transition, the current situation in Iraq and relations with the U.S. going forward.

In his assessment, Ambassador Hill found reasons to be optimistic about Iraq and its future, even as the country struggles to form a new government and amid growing concerns over an uptick in violence.

A national and international audience followed the discussion at USIP’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, which was translated into Arabic by Meedan.net, and included a Webcast. Close to 7,000 people followed USIP’s live Twitter and blog posts. 

Though the U.S. role in Iraq fundamentally changes August 31, most Iraqis won’t notice. The combat mission that began in 2003 will be transformed to a civilian effort led by U.S. diplomats at the world’s largest embassy. About 50,000 troops will remain through the end of next year. The troops will be there in an advisory role and will join Iraqi troops on missions if requested.

The last U.S. combat brigade left Iraq late August 18 the same day that James Jeffrey, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, arrived in Baghdad.

The U.S. drawdown of troops will usher in many defining moments for Iraq, which is still without an official government. Five months after its citizens voted in a general election, the country is having trouble forming a new government, and there seems to be an upsurge in violence. But Hill remains optimistic.

Where others see doubts, Hill sees progress. Iraq, he says, “will get a new government, which will include Kurds, Sunnis and Shias. It won’t be on our time schedule. It’s never going to be exactly what we want but the Iraqi people will demand that they get certain things done.”

The March election has yielded many sticking points. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite coalition and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc have been vying for power. The election results were so close that neither man won enough seats to form a government.

“I agree with his belief that one should be optimistic about Iraq’s future – after the hell the country went through from 2003-2007, things couldn’t have been much worse and could only get better,” said USIP expert Ret. Col. Paul  Hughes who attended the event. Other perspectives on Iraq from USIP experts Sean Kane, Manal Omar and Daniel Serwer can be found at the Institute’s On the Issues: Iraq in Transition.

Hill said that the United States and the international community are interested in Iraq’s success, and he foresees the country being a major player in the oil market and becoming economically successful. Iraq, he said, “could produce as much oil as Saudi Arabia and that will attract foreign investment. The U.S. can be helpful, and the U.N. needs to be engaged."

 Ambassador Hill, who just ended a 16-month post in Iraq, said that the people of Iraq will require basic services from the government such as electricity, water and other necessities and those will take time. “I don't think there is any doubt that we're committed to a long-term presence here,” he said.

Hill fielded questions from an international audience on issues ranging from the notion of partitioning Iraq, the role of religious minorities, proper training for police trained to respect human rights, relationships with other Muslim nations including Iran and Turkey, to the role of other countries including China, Indonesia, France and Russia.

“We work with congressional staff, members for support of Iraq. It’s been a difficult and emotional seven years. You have to respect the person on the other side of the issue. Our programs are slimming down. People should take a more holistic view of our operations. Civilians are taking over duties previously done by military. The State Department needs to be there,” Hill said.

USIP has been in Iraq since 2004 and has trained more than 1,400 Iraqis in Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise (SENSE) a computer gaming center that allows simulation on negotiation, strategy and decision-making skills.

Hill will join academia as dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  Before his Iraq post, he held similar positions in Poland and Macedonia, and was a special envoy to Kosovo. From 2005 to 2009 he was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and headed the U.S. Delegation on the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Hill cautioned that, “It’s not in our interest to be pushing ourselves on people who don’t want us involved. We must be respectful of a country’s sovereignty. “And it will take time. “If it’s instant gratification you want (in Iraq), better look elsewhere.” 

Speakers

  • Ambassador Christopher Hill
    U.S. Department of State
  • William Taylor, Moderator
    Vice President, Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations
    U.S. Institute of Peace

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