Troops gone, U.S. increasingly sidelined in Iraq

Thu Dec 20, 2012 7:42am EST
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By Barry Malone and Peter Apps

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When a group of Americans and their heavily armed guards arrived at the Turkish embassy for a party in September, Iraqi police outside blocked their path.

Unless they surrendered the weapons held by their security detail in accordance with embassy policy, the Iraqis said, the delegation of U.S. diplomats would not be allowed in.

What exactly happened next, two sources who were guests at the event say, is not entirely clear. At least one shot was fired, likely a warning shot by the Iraqi police. The Americans got back into their vehicles and disappeared into the night.

After all of the violence and bombing of the last decade, the confrontation went barely noticed. But it points to the way the United States has watched its influence in Iraq dwindle.

A year after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, American officials and their vehicles have all but disappeared from the streets of Baghdad. When U.S. officials emerge from their fortresslike embassy compound, they are clearly no longer the de facto rulers of the country they once were.

Many keep themselves to themselves, preferring to fly over Baghdad rather than drive through it and increasingly avoiding contact with the government of Nouri-al Maliki. One U.S. official told Reuters he had not left the compound in almost 3 years except to return to the United States for leave.

"Americans?" said one Iraqi official asked about U.S.-Iraqi cooperation. "I'd like to see some."

In Washington and other Western capitals, there are mounting worries a failure to negotiate a permanent U.S. military presence may leave them sidelined for good. To make matters worse, they worry Maliki's majority Shi'ite government is quietly moving ever closer to Washington's premier regional foe Tehran.   Continued...

Residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in al-Mouafaqiyah, a village near Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, December 17, 2012. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousuly