BAGHDAD — 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 US 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 US troops withdrew from Iraq, American officials and their vehicles have all but disappeared from the streets of Baghdad. When US 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 US official told Reuters he had not left the compound in almost three years except to return to the United States for leave.
“Americans?” said one Iraqi official asked about US-Iraqi cooperation. “I’d like to see some.”
In Washington and other Western capitals, there are mounting worries a failure to negotiate a permanent US 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.
Reports Tehran was using Iraqi airspace – and perhaps even airports and trucking routes – to supply weapons to ally Bashar al-Assad in his battle to retain control of Syria have only deepened that perception. For some, it is yet another sign that ousting the minority Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and attempting to increase greater democracy was never truly in the US interest.
Washington says the relationship remains close. On December 6, US and Iraqi officials met in Baghdad for their latest meeting on security cooperation, discussing military sales and regional crises such as Syria. Strains, however, remain clear.
“Does Iran have influence? Absolutely. Do we have influence? Absolutely,” one US official told Reuters.
“But the Iraqis are the first to say they are pursuing their own interests.” (Reuters)