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

Multimedia

Explore Further

Related Publications

Four Years After ISIS, Iraq’s Tal Afar Remains Riven by Communal Divisions

Four Years After ISIS, Iraq’s Tal Afar Remains Riven by Communal Divisions

Monday, August 2, 2021

By: Osama Gharizi; Joshua Levkowitz

Iraq is a country beset by a host of political, security, economic and social challenges, including addressing the human legacy of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) rampage through the country just a few years ago. Almost four years after the liberation of Nineveh’s Tal Afar district from ISIS control, feelings of marginalization, neglect and exclusion persist among communities in the region, epitomizing how such feelings have driven ethnic and sectarian tensions and conflict in post-2003 Iraq. Recognition of these sentiments and an understanding of the factors underpinning them, can help communities in the district allay these drivers of tension and move forward together.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Reconciliation; Fragility & Resilience

Beyond Security: The Quest for a Sustained, Strategic U.S.-Iraq Partnership

Beyond Security: The Quest for a Sustained, Strategic U.S.-Iraq Partnership

Thursday, July 29, 2021

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

On Monday, President Joe Biden received Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the Oval Office to strengthen bilateral relations and discuss matters of mutual interest, key among them being the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. Despite widespread thinking that Iraq and the Middle East do not rank high in the mix of the Biden administration’s priorities, there have been clear signals that Iraq remains important enough to the United States and that Kadhimi and his government are partners that the United States can work with and should support. While most of the media attention focused on the announcement of the change in U.S. force posture in Iraq, the key takeaway from this week’s meeting is that the United States and Iraq seek to maintain their strategic partnership — and build on it.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy; Fragility & Resilience

Unemployment Replaces ISIS as Top Security Concern for Minorities in Iraq

Unemployment Replaces ISIS as Top Security Concern for Minorities in Iraq

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State group (ISIS) seized control of much of Iraq’s Nineveh province, including the provincial capital of Mosul. The militant group committed genocide against ethnic and religious minorities. Today, more than three years since the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq, ethnic and religious minority residents of three key districts of Nineveh say rampant unemployment, not ISIS, is their top security concern, according to data gathered by the United States Institute of Peace. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Human Rights; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications