The official exit of American soldiers from Iraqi cities makes this a happy day for the Iraqis, but I'd call their public jubilation--which has included promises of "feasts and festivals"--a little premature. While the U.S. has withdrawn its troop presence from Iraqi cities, 130,000 American soldiers (plus an untold number of security contractors) still operate in the country. Most of those troops will remain for at least another year, tens of thousands more will probably stay for another 18 months or so. The story isn't over yet, then--particularly, as Tom Ricks notes, because Iraq's political system remains extremely vulnerable.
But that jubilation, however premature, still has a positive effect. It's great news if the Iraqis are feeling a greater sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Remember, Barack Obama's plan for leaving Iraq was always based in part on the idea that Iraq couldn't reach true political reconciliation until it was clear that the Americans wouldn't be sticking around indefinitely forever. Hopefully the more Iraqis sense that America really is leaving, the more committed they'll be to creating a stable society that can carry on without our help.
This picture is clouded by some real uncertainty, however. The status of forces (SOFA) agreement reached between Washington and Baghdad last summer allows American troops to stay in the country until December 31, 2011. In exchange for the support of dissident lawmakers, however, the U.S. and Iraqi leaders agreed to a provision in the SOFA putting the agreement to popular referendum this summer. If the Iraqi people should vote down the SOFA, as they seem wont to do, the U.S. will have twelve months to get out of Iraq completely. Given the ample reason for concern that already exists about Iraq's security, and lasting resentment at American forces among the Iraqi people, this referendum has the potential to throw our withdrawal plans--and perhaps Iraqi's security--into sudden chaos.
Fortunately, that doesn't seem likely to happen. One Senate foreign policy aide who tracks the issue closely tells me that, although the vote is technically required by July 30, "no one seems to be taking that possibility very seriously." Instead, US and Iraqi leaders expect it to be merged with Iraq's national elections on January 10, something Iraq's deputy prime minister called likely in a recent interview.
It's true that even a January vote to kick out the Americans within a year, by late 2010 instead of late 2011, would cause a mess. (Not least because exiting that fast would be a huge logistical challenge for the U.S.). But even this outcome, my source says, is far from clear-cut. The January elections will likely lead to a new government in Baghdad, possibly even a new prime minister. A vote to cancel the SOFA would likely get caught up in the change of Iraqi leadership, which might simply renegotiate the SOFA struck by their predecessors. The people having spoken, the government might look to move up the U.S. timeline for withdrawal, but probably not dramatically.
That might not seem terribly democratic, but it also strikes me as probably being for the best. Of course, if Iraq should be sliding back into chaos six months from now, all bets are off as to how the political system--both ours and Iraq's--will respond.