Iraq in 2009
Perhaps the biggest milestone of the new year that will be immediately felt is that the Iraq-US status of forces agreement becomes operative, meaning that Iraq has formal control of the Green Zone in Baghdad, and American troops must petition the Iraqi government before taking action against insurgent activity.
Many of the changes inaugurated on New Year's Day won't bring immediately visible results. The Green Zone, the country's government and military command center, remains ringed by concrete blast walls and off limits to most Iraqis. U.S. troops still man its checkpoints, although now as trainers rather than leaders.
But the Americans have moved out of the Republican Palace, the sprawling former headquarters of Saddam's regime that they took over shortly after the 2003 invasion. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formerly took control of the building Thursday and exulted over the security pact under which U.S. troops are to leave the country by 2012.
"A year ago, the mere thought of forces withdrawing from Iraq was considered a dream," al-Maliki told reporters afterward. "The dream that no one had the right to think about became true."
He called for making Jan. 1 a national holiday called "Sovereignty Day." Iraq already officially observes New Year's Day as a holiday.
The road to what passes for stability in Iraq is lines with the blood of ethnic cleansing, and when there was nobody left to cleanse violence plummeted. The resultant uneasy peace is fortified by blast walls separating Shiite from Sunni. This is what we're supposed to consider in a celebration of democracy and order.
The geography of Baghdad is walls, built one barrier at a time, along streets and around neighborhoods, through intersections and over bridges. For some, the gray of freshly poured concrete long ago gave way to the city's more dominant ochers. Many are painted. Others are decorated with plastic flowers, gathering dust. A few bear murals.
But they remain walls, dividing a city from itself, in an attempt to stanch violence.
"Welcome to the city of Sadiya," the wall here reads, with no sense of irony.
"The walls are the most hated thing. I swear to God, they're despised," said Hussein Abbas Hassan, plastering posters for a candidate with his two sons, Yasser and Samir. "I wish God would descend from heaven and tear them down."
Juan Cole has his annual top ten myths about Iraq in 2008. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced and very few have come back. Maybe a million are food insecure and 6 million subsist on UN rations. This is on top of the maybe a million dead. We are being forced out of the country by a defiant Iraqi populace who demanded a withdrawal date in the SOFA agreement and did the best job of any entity in bending George Bush to their will. But I don't want to hear anybody talking about victory. Iraq is a garden of nightmares, and that the preliminary stages are coming to an end does not blot those out of the memory.