The American fast-food chains are long gone from Camp Ramadi in Anbar Province. So, too, are the Iraqi souvenir stores near the "D-Fac" - that's army talk for "Dining Facility."
This camp, a flat, forsaken military base in a scorching desert on the outskirts of Anbar's capital, once among the most dangerous places in Iraq, has shrunk to less than a quarter of its original size.
More than half of the makeshift barracks in flimsy trailers now stand empty behind the thick cement T-walls that protect against explosives. Vehicles, too, are hard to come by. Many of them, along with transport helicopters, translators and high-end communications equipment, have been shipped to Afghanistan, President Obama's "essential" war.
About a fourth of the base, which Iraq rented to the U.S. military years ago, is now back under Iraqi military control.
The combat phase of America's war in Iraq has officially ended - an important milestone, to be sure. But "victory" here remains elusive, hostage to deeply bitter Iraqi politics, foreign meddling and economic fragility.
Given continuing terrorism, though its levels are far reduced from the civil war of 2006, Iraq's future hangs by a thread.
Despite the political vacuum, the 3,800 soldiers of the 1st "Advise and Assist Brigade" of the 82nd Airborne Division in Anbar Province turned in their ammo earlier this month and turned over the base they inherited a year ago from some 18,000 Marines to the 3,400 soldiers of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. Like the 50,000 other American soldiers and some 90,000 private contractors who will remain in Iraq, they, too, will spend a year conducting what the military calls "non-kinetic" or non-combat missions.
In Anbar, which I visited in mid July as part of a two-week stay in Iraq, the soldiers will continue helping Iraqi security forces track down terrorists, equip and train Iraqi soldiers and provincial and local police, and try to empower the Iraqi government by ensuring that vital government services are delivered to the province's 1.5 million residents – someday.
Officially, the 1st Brigade has declared its year-long stay in what was once an Al Qaeda stronghold as well as the birthplace of the Sunni tribal-led counter-insurgency, a crucial success. Here there is no talk of "withdrawal."
Rather, the military script calls the force reduction mandated by a U.S.-Iraqi agreement and the withdrawal timetable negotiated by the Bush administration a "responsible drawdown," a "transformation" of America's military presence in Iraq to a "robust civilian footprint."
"This mission has been absolutely worth doing," Col. Mark Stammer, the 1st Brigade's commander, told me when I visited Camp Ramadi last month in his unit's waning days. Our work here – securing the victory by giving the provincial government a chance to grow – has been vital."
"I don't want my kid, a junior at West Point, to have to come here and finish our work," he added. "With our Iraqi partners, we can do it well now."
But while senior officers proudly reeled off their lists of accomplishments, there was little sense of victory as the 1st Brigade quietly began leaving. Anbar, some 60 miles west of Baghdad in Iraq's wild west, where Sunni Muslims predominate, is undoubtedly far safer today than it was in 2007. But last month it was still not safe enough for soldiers to walk down a street in either Ramadi or Fallujah, which the Marines had flattened years earlier in fierce fighting to quell the insurgency.
Nor were soldiers able to take a reporter to dinner in a restaurant in either city, to a market, or to the sole refurbished park in Ramadi. Indeed, as the last American combat troops headed for the Kuwaiti border earlier this week, two Iraqis policemen were killed in a suicide bombing at a checkpoint in Anbar. In Baghdad, 61 Iraqis were murdered in an even larger suicide strike as they waited to join Iraqi security forces outside the Ministry of Defense.
The 1st Brigade soldiers in Anbar are justifiably proud that there was almost no large-scale violence during the national election back in March, when over 60% of the province turned out to vote overwhelmingly for a list headed by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite candidate who won by standing for secular values in this increasingly politically and ethnically polarized country. But the political elites of Baghdad are still famously unable to form a national government - five months after an election intended to test the country's fledgling democracy.
And the larger landscape of this nation's "progress" should be lost on no one. While the nation's American-blessed political class spent the summer squabbling over government posts and other spoils of office that have enabled them and their underlings to continue stealing in the name of the people, most Iraqis, except in the prosperous, efficient Kurdish north, have sweltered through a summer of power black-outs, soul-crushing heat, episodically clean water and almost no trash collection. Abandoned animal carcasses line the streets not only of Ramadi, but also Baghdad.
Despite this, State Department officials who almost never leave their high-walled embassy, America's largest, even to wander through the rest of the heavily protected International, or Green, Zone present PowerPoint lectures about having restored municipal trash collection three times a day.
Is the stench of decaying goats the smell of victory?
In a disturbing pattern in Ramadi and elsewhere, the dregs of the insurgency, allegedly Iranian-backed militias, and anonymous political and business rivals, domestic and foreign, have been targeting regional political and security officials to discredit the government and undermine public morale. The assassin's silencer and "magnetic IED's," crude explosives stuck to the bottom of official cars, have replaced most large-scale suicide bombing in Anbar. But the heavily fortified governor's compound was still attacked three times in devastating strikes in the past year.
Qasem Mohammed, Anbar's 55-year old governor, widely admired by Americans for his role in the Sunni "Awakening" and his economic ambitions for the province, lost his left hand in an attack on his convoy just outside his office last December in which 24 people were killed and over 60 wounded. Treated at a military hospital, he was flown to the U.S. and given a new, high-powered robotic hand.
The most recent strike occurred on July 4, less than a week before my visit.
While the Americans have invested billions in public works and training, Anbar's needs are vast. Brigadier General Baha'a al-Karkhi, Ramadi's energetic police chief, estimated that 10 percent of his 26,000 police officers still have ties to insurgents.
"We have quantity, but not quality," he told me. Yet so far, the Americans military has only been able to train 2,000 members of his largely inexperienced force.
Deputy Governor Fuad Hikmat, who has been in office for 18 months, told me he had survived being shot at 30 times in a single attack. He said he was worried about his country's endemic corruption, but also about undue foreign "interference" in Iraq's affairs – first and foremost by Iran, but also by Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States. But he also complains about America's drawdown of forces to 50,000 troops by September 1st, all of whom are supposed to leave Iraq by end of 2011. "We are not ready for the Americans to leave," he tells me.
Such candor is unusual. Most officials I talked to in Ramadi or Baghdad publicly applauded the end of America's combat presence in Iraq, saving their private appeals for American forces to stay on for our private, off-the-record discussions. "Every Iraqi is determined to have U.S. troops withdraw completely, but terrified that they actually will," Ken Pollack, an Iraq expert with the Brookings Institution, recently told Politico.
The sense of apprehension in Baghdad is even stronger than in Ramadi. In Baghdad's heavily fortified bases and private compounds, in a city with 1,500 checkpoints and miles of ugly concrete barriers still surrounding buildings and roads, American diplomats huddle with would-be Iraqi prime ministers, seeking to break Iraq's political impasse. Indeed, Iraq's future seems to be very much in the balance as "Operation Iraqi Freedom," the war's 7-year combat phase of the war, morphs into "Operation New Dawn."
"Iraqis now own the battle space," said Maj. Gen. Terry Wolff, the dynamic commander of the First Armored Division which oversees Baghdad and Anbar provinces, in an interview at his base outside Baghdad International Airport.
"We're not going back," he tells me. "Yes, there are bad days. But these are tactical bad days. The Iraqis are now capable of dealing with the threats they face themselves."
We will soon find out.