*with Isam Rashid
BAGHDAD – Talk of withdrawal has been dogging the administrations of the United States and Britain for months. Recently the Sunday Telegraph in Australia and the Daily Mirror in Britain ran reports quoting a senior British official that the two countries will withdraw by 2007.
The United States was quick to deny these claims and to reassure the public that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq until the job is done.
Iraqis have their own doubts over such claims.
Ali al-Khalidi, an Iraqi shop owner told IPS he did not believe the rumors of withdrawal because "they have every benefit in Iraq and everyday they steal more and more from Iraq."
Some Iraqis suggest that the withdrawal rumors might indicate the resistance is winning. Since the occupation began on April 9, 2003, there have been elements of resistance, some peaceful, some armed.
According to Ma’ad Ahmed, a 33-year-old unemployed Iraqi, after withdrawal the resistance "will control Iraq, and they have that right because they lost so much money and blood to liberate Iraq."
Others, such as Zaid Hadi, an Iraqi barber, feel that withdrawal will signal a victory both for the resistance and Iraq’s new politicians.
Hadi also told IPS that he did not believe the rumors were true, because, "it’s one of their lies like other promises; we trusted and respected the U.S. government before the occupation, but now we discovered they were liars."
Hadi also feels that the United States has driven Iraq towards a civil war. Many Iraqis blame the apparent descent of Iraq into civil war on the failure of the occupation to provide security to Iraqi civilians.
Whatever the cause for the sectarian tensions in Iraq, Dumiya feels that withdrawal could mean disaster.
"I’m afraid if they withdraw their troops it will be civil war in Iraq," she said. "Some Shia have begun to hate Sunni and some Sunni hate Shia. We are frightened by this, because if this grows, it will be civil war." Iraqis continue to be greatly divided on the issue of withdrawal.
The British government has made an announcement that it will withdraw ten percent of its troops as early as May. This announcement comes amidst the Bush administration’s continued assertions that any defined date for withdrawal would only embolden the terrorists.
Ma’ad Ahmed feels that only political discontent within the United States and Britain will lead to a withdrawal of troops. Some of this is already being seen in the British announcement after Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent loss of popularity.
Ma’ad told IPS that Iraqis did not need the Multinational Forces to remain "because Iraqi people don’t want to fight each other. For example, after the occupation there was no Iraqi government for three or four months and nothing bad happened. This proves that Iraqis want to live in peace."
The mainstream press has presented the looming specter of civil war as the counterpoint to rumors of withdrawal.
The Bush administration has adamantly denied the possibility of civil war emerging in Iraq. It now appears that the opinion of many Iraqis on this has converged with that of the Bush administration.
Ma’ad Ahmed told IPS that even the bombing of such an important landmark as the al-Askariya shrine would not lead to civil war. "I think everything will be okay in one month, the main reason for no security is the occupation. After the U.S. and UK withdraw their troops from Iraq, the resistance will control Iraq and they will keep security."
Although many seem to agree that civil war is not inevitable, Iraqis place the responsibility for security squarely on the occupation, the Multinational Forces Iraq.
"They promised to keep the security, but we found they work to make civil war in Iraq, and (U.S. defense secretary) Donald Rumsfeld should be ashamed of his last declaration, because it means U.S. troops are not responsible to help the Iraqi army," said Zaid Hadi.
Rumsfeld recently declared that if a civil war breaks out, the United States will depend on the Iraqi army to provide security and keep the peace in Iraq.
With the recent attacks in Sadr City and reprisal killings of more than 80 Iraqis in the 24 hours afterwards, sectarian tension is certain to continue.
Iraqis are understandably more concerned about their daily safety than whether officials are considering withdrawing, or bolstering troops this week.
Ali al-Khalidi says the two are intrinsically linked. "I hope to see the day when the U.S. and UK withdraw their troops from Iraq. It will be like a new sun rising on Iraq, because we are living in darkness under occupation."