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U.S., Iraq ties evolve year after war

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BAGHDAD – A year after the last American troops rumbled out of Iraq, the two countries still are trying to get comfortable with a looser, more nuanced relationship as the young democracy struggles to cope with political upheaval and the legacy of war.

The military pullout a year ago today did not end Washington’s engagement. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a fortresslike campus as big as Vatican City, remains a highly visible reminder of America’s ongoing interest in Iraq’s future. Several senior U.S. officials have visited Baghdad over the past year, and America’s role as Iraq’s biggest arms supplier ensures continuing ties to the Iraqi military for years to come.

U.S. companies are hunting for Iraqi oil, and Chevrolet Malibus and Dodge Chargers increasingly cruise Baghdad streets still dotted with checkpoints. Iraqi Airways just days ago got its first Boeing jetliner in three decades, and it’s waiting for dozens more.

But Iraq is, at the same time, busily pursuing its own interests – sometimes against America’s wishes – as it seeks to balance its position in a precarious part of the world and reestablish itself as a regional power.

“Since the U.S. withdrawal, Baghdad ... has attempted to re-think its relations with the U.S.,” said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. She described the strategy as trying to establish a two-way, “non-exclusive relationship with the United States.”

Iraq’s desire to go its own way was on display last month when authorities freed a jailed Hezbollah commander that Washington had wanted to keep behind bars. The U.S. considers Ali Mussa Daqduq to be a major threat to Americans in the region and believes the Lebanese militant was behind a brazen 2007 raid on a military base that left five U.S. soldiers dead.

Iraqi courts determined there was insufficient evidence to keep him locked up, and the country’s Shiite-led government refused to extradite him to the U.S. to face further trials. Iraq meanwhile continues to forge stronger ties with neighbor Iran, Hezbollah’s top patron, even as the United States and many of its allies work to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to make his second visit to Baghdad soon.

A U.S. Embassy official recently said the Iranian flights continue.

“They need to stop flights at least frequently and randomly without advance notice to have a look. We believe these flights carry weapons, and not just humanitarian supplies ... or flowers for the tabletops of Damascus,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

American officials say their relationship with Iraq is improving nonetheless.

A number of senior officials have visited Baghdad in recent months, including Sen. John McCain and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Robert Ford, the ambassador to Syria, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to discuss efforts to resolve the civil war there.

Even so, the American presence in the country continues to shrink.

The number of U.S. government employees and contractors working at diplomatic outposts around the country has fallen below 14,000, according to figures provided by the embassy in Baghdad. That is down from about 16,000 earlier this year. It is expected to shrink to about 12,000 in 2013.

Even after the last American bases were handed over to the Iraqis and U.S. troops rolled out across the border with Kuwait on Dec. 18, 2011, a small number of military personnel stayed in Iraq as an arm of the American Embassy.

They are responsible for facilitating Iraqi arms purchases, including three C-130J transport planes handed over Monday, and training the Iraqis how to use and maintain the weapons. Fewer than 200 of those trainers and administrators remain in the country, and their numbers are expected to decline further into next year.

Iraq’s transition to a world without American boots on the ground has been rocky.

Political crisis gripped the country as soon as U.S. troops left, when the Iraqi government announced an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, one of the country’s highest-ranking Sunni politicians. Al-Hashemi is accused of orchestrating death squads – a charge he dismisses as politically motivated. Iraqi courts have since found him guilty in absentia and handed down multiple death sentences against him.

Al-Hashemi initially sought refuge in Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region, away from security forces controlled by the central government, and later traveled to neighboring Turkey, where he remains. The Kurds’ and Turks’ willingness to offer him shelter has helped sour Baghdad’s relations with both.

Other Iraqi officials also have been pushed from their posts amid allegations of wrongdoing, including the respected governor of the central bank, Sinan al-Shabibi. Critics see the moves as an effort by al-Maliki to marginalize perceived opponents. The government denies any such motive.

Ethnic tensions, meanwhile, are bubbling back to the surface. The Kurds, a different ethnic group from Iraq’s majority Arabs, last month sent additional troops to fortify their positions in disputed areas bordering the Kurds’ largely autonomous northern enclave.

Both sides have agreed to withdraw their forces eventually. Still to be resolved are deeply entrenched disputes over the contested areas as well as how to share wealth and manage oil resources.

Securing Iraq, as always, remains a challenge as well. Although the bloodshed is not so rampant as it was during its peak in 2006 to 2007, deadly attacks against civilians remain painfully common. Iraqi security forces still struggle to gather intelligence on militants and prevent attacks – a task made harder without help from the U.S. military.

While many Iraqis were happy to see U.S. forces leave their country after eight long years, some say they now regret that the American soldiers departed when they did.

“We now wish that the Americans would have not left us so soon,” said Ibrahim Karim, a 35-year-old government employee in Baghdad. “The Americans left Iraq as a playground for neighboring countries and full of chaos and violence.”

On Monday alone, a wave of bombings struck a number of targets, including areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds, killing at least 25 people.

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