An expected phased reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq after the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left Iraqis split on Thursday whether a withdrawal would be in their best interest.
While a majority of Iraqis want to see the departure of Washington’s 150,000 troops, according to a recent poll, many fear an early pullout would worsen an already bleak situation as rival groups may vie for control and violence escalates.
Abu Abdullah, a member of the Sunni minority from the northern city of Mosul, said his sect, fighting in an anti-U.S. rebellion, needs U.S. protection from Shiite militants.
“I prefer them to stay in Iraq because we Sunnis are very weak at the current time,” the 38-year-old man said. “If they withdraw, then the militias will become bolder and the fighting will increase,” he added.
U.S. officials say violence between the country’s rival Muslim Shiite and Sunni sects has become more of a threat to Iraq’s stability than the Sunni insurgency in central Iraq.
Help or hurdle?
Others argue that the presence of U.S. troops has not stopped daily killings and their absence may reduce violence.
“What good have they done in Iraq? If the Americans are holding us back from fighting terrorists then we don’t need them,” said Mohammed Khalil, 40-year-old Shiite tea vendor as he stirred sugar and cinnamon into his small glass.
“I see them as a hurdle to our ambitions, Iraq will become stable if they leave us alone,” he added.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, of the Shiite majority community, has openly criticized the U.S. military for not providing him more weaponry and more say over his own forces.
He has resisted U.S. and Sunni pressure to disarm Shiite militias linked to parties in his coalition while insisting on the need to focus fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Baath supporters and Sunni al-Qaida militants.
U.S. officials have said Baghdad needs to stand up and assume control to pave the way for a U.S. departure.
Rumsfeld is seen as an architect of the war that ousted Saddam. He was a symbol of a policy that was under fire due to unrelenting violence in Iraq.
It was a major factor in losses by President Bush’s Republicans in congressional elections on Tuesday.
New Pentagon face
His replacement with former CIA boss Robert Gates signals a change in direction. Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel reviewing U.S. policy expected to produce recommendations in the coming weeks.
In the Shiite city of Hilla, Hashim al-Araji, a 55-year-old man who repairs cars, blamed Iraq’s woes solely on the United States but still voiced pessimism for Iraq’s future despite recent events in Washington.
“Will it make a difference if we asked them to leave?,” he said. “In the end, they are the only ones who can make that decision.”