By Tim Arango
April 11, 2011
BAGHDAD - On Monday morning, the Iraqi foreign minister stood in a marble rotunda of Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace, once the heart of the American occupation, and noted that this was where the United States held sway when it "was trying to help us run our country."
How did that go? "Badly," he said.
Soon the palace will be the setting for an Arab League summit meeting - a showpiece for a country, once a regional pariah, that is now trying to assert itself on the stage of Middle East affairs at a time when its neighbors are in turmoil.
"It will be very important because of the recent changes and historical developments in other Arab countries," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "We are ready, Baghdad is ready, to receive all the Arab presidents."
The palace, where a Turkish company has been working round the clock since August to dismantle the American fortifications and restore it to the standards of a great Arab capital, speaks to Iraq's yearning to shed the burdens of war and occupation and achieve a degree of national self-confidence.
The unveiling of the palace's improvements on Monday, in a tour given by the Foreign Ministry, was also another symbol of the waning influence of the United States here, just as crucial decisions about the future relationship between the two countries, both diplomatically and militarily, hang in the balance.
The sandbags the Americans left at the palace are gone, but a sign reading "U.S. Embassy Motor Pool" still hangs on a wall outside a rear entrance. There was little structural damage to fix.
"They didn't bomb it because they knew they were going to stay here," said Almanhal H. Alsafi, the chief protocol officer for the Foreign Ministry.
These are supposed to be the last months for American troops in Iraq. President Obama said so in January during his State of the Union address. He said it again in his speech on Libya last month, saying America's military was "leaving Iraq to its people." But like much else that has taken place here over the last eight years, nothing is that simple.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited last week and broached a subject that has been discussed in the alleys of Sadr City, on the ethnic fault line of the north where Arabs and Kurds compete for land and oil, and in background conversations between reporters and diplomats - but rarely in public by American officials: that some troops might be here after this year because Iraq needs them to protect its borders and airspace.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the streets were filled with angry protesters denouncing America's continued military presence and warning of more violence if troops stayed beyond this year. Each day, the Iraqi press is filled with speculation and rumors about whether the Americans will stay or go.
But there have been no serious discussions between the two governments about extending the time frame.
"There has been no request from the Iraqi side, nor have there been any discussions from the Iraqi side," James F. Jeffrey, the American ambassador to Iraq, said recently.
The State Department has worked up plans to double its size here in preparation for the scheduled military withdrawal. It intends to expand from about 8,000 civilians to more than 16,000, many of them private contractors, but Congress has not yet approved the money to pay for it.
Iraq is asserting itself in the negotiations over the State Department's role. It has asked for two consulates in the United States beyond its embassy in Washington - it already has one in Detroit and plans another in California - in exchange for allowing the United States to establish temporary branch offices in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
For all of America's spent blood and treasure here, there are remarkably few visible remnants of it. The United States is glimpsed only in quick flashes of an armored convoy, or by the worn edges of a few American novels in the booksellers market on Mutanabbi Street. The number of American media outlets with offices here has dwindled to a handful.
Out of America's war, Turkey and Iran have forged new relationships here, diplomatically and politically. A Turkish executive whose company refurbished the palace accompanied Mr. Zebari on the tour of the building. At the Rashid Hotel, also getting an extensive face-lift for the summit meeting scheduled for May 10 and 11, and a stop on the Foreign Ministry's tour on Monday, it was a British executive of the main renovation company who stood next to Mr. Zebari. Chinese state television recently set up a bureau in Baghdad.
Few American businesses are here to partake in Iraq's potential spoils, mainly because of security concerns. While violence has dropped sharply, the diplomats and the few American executives here still travel in armored vehicles and wear flak vests.
Last week a group of American finance executives, including some from Citibank hoping to open a branch office, ate omelets at an American-style diner called DoJos in the heavily protected Green Zone. One man said he had made good money holding Iraqi government debt from the time of the sectarian civil war, but it was his first time in Baghdad and he was staying for less than 48 hours. The group was being carted around in armored vehicles and was guarded by burly security men with earpieces.
Many of the former Westernized exiles who came back to Iraq in 2003 have parted with the Americans since. Tamara Daghistani, a former exile who briefed the Americans in Kuwait before the invasion about Iraqi culture, among them the first American administrator, Jay Garner, now chastises the Americans who "don't leave the Green Zone."
"If you're here to help, then get out and do it," she said.
Meanwhile, at the palace, a beaming Mr. Zebari called the great hall where he says Arab leaders will gather "a symbol of Iraq's sovereignty."
"There were some people who said we were not ready, from Parliament and others, who said we couldn't have this event here," he said. "We want to show them, no, we are ready for it."
When asked about the future relationship with the United States, he said that was a discussion for another day.
"It's still a big debate going on," he said.