On New Year's Day, U.S. forces handed over security responsibilities to the Iraqi government. This marks a milestone that could be the beginning of a year of major change in the country. This dramatic shift is the result of a security agreement recently agreed to between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. The agreementknown as the Status of Forces Agreementbuilds on the security and political gains achieved in Iraq last year and will continue to allow the Iraqi government to stand on its own so our troops can continue coming home.
Because of other economic and political events that dominated the news last month, this historic U.S.-Iraqi security agreement went largely unreported in the press. And while the infamous shoe-throwing incident in Baghdad gained more television coverage, this pact represented a significant achievement for both Iraq and the U.S. General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, remarked: "I truly believe this agreement is historic. It is a huge step forward, showing we now recognize Iraq as a sovereign country." Commenting on what it meant for their country, a senior member of Iraq's Ministry of Interior stated: "Now it is our turn to be responsible for the safety of our country."
Like any deal negotiated between sovereign nations, this security agreement is not flawless. However, when considering the history of the Iraq conflict, it is notable for a number of reasons. The agreement places Iraqis squarely in charge of security, giving them the authority to sign off on U.S. military operations in the country. The pact also ensures Iraq continues stepping into the lead in military missions by requiring U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 of this year. Our forces are scheduled to leave the country entirely by December 31, 2011.
CONTINUED SECURITY GAINS
This landmark agreement – and the continued drawdown of American forces it calls for – is a direct result of last year's U.S.-led surge offensive, which quelled violence and terrorist activity across the country, as well as the increased capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.
The Pentagon notes that Iraq added nearly 40,000 police and 30,000 soldiers to their security force in 2008. Last May, U.S.-led coalition forces conducted 50-60 percent of military patrols. By last month, that number had dropped to 30 percent, as Iraqi security forces continued to strengthen.
As Iraqi troops and police have taken the security lead, attacks on U.S. troops continue to fall as our troops transfer to support roles. In the second half of 2008, Iraqi security forces withstood more than three times as many casualties and injuries as U.S. forces. In fact, last year U.S. troop casualties in Iraq were down 66 percent from the year before.
The New Year stands to be a watershed year for the Iraqi people. In addition to the changes resulting from the security agreement, the country will also hold a series of elections, starting with provincial elections at the end of the month. These elections may stir up additional violence as the remaining terrorists in Iraq try to disrupt the democratic process. However, with the counsel and assistance of U.S. forces, Iraqis will work to overcome these challenges and continue showing they can stand on their own.
In the U.S., 2009 also brings an opportunity to come together as a unified country on the issue of Iraq. Over the last few years, Iraq has divided our political parties and the American people. Now, President-elect Obama has a chance to end this partisanship. While not perfect, the recently-signed security agreement provides a road map for continued U.S.-Iraqi cooperation, as well as a plan for our troops to exit Iraq. I hope President-elect Obama uses this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus on the way forward in Iraq, allowing our troops to finish their jobs and come home in success.