Dec 12th 2011, 17:25 by P.F. | KOLKATA
EXPECTATIONS for India’s economic growth rate have been sliding inexorably. In the early spring there was still heady talk about 9-10% being the new natural rate of expansion, a trajectory which if maintained would make the country an economic superpower in a couple of decades. Now things look very different. The latest GDP growth figure slipped to 6.9% and industrial production numbers just released, on December 12th, showed a decline of 5.1% compared with the previous period, a miserable state of affairs. The slump looks broadly based, from mining to capital goods, and in severity compares with that experienced at the height of the financial crisis, in February 2009, when a drop of 7.2% took place. Bombast is turning to panic.
Several riders apply. The industrial production series is notoriously volatile—most economists admit to being baffled by its swings. The comparison with the prior year period was unflattering. And it would be surprising if India were not hurt by the agonies of the rich world—after all from China to Brazil investors are jittery about the outlook, too. Moreover the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been raising rates through the year to try to bring inflation, running at some 9%, under control. At Mumbai drinks parties, after a scotch too many, industrialists can be reduced to apoplexy on this subject—the central bank, they argue, has overreacted, killing growth to tame an inflation problem that is largely the result of structural factors such as poor food supply chains.
Yet another factor looms. Years of government drift have meant a loss of momentum on reform, from building infrastructure to controlling graft. That drift was symbolised by the ruling coalition’s decision this month to allow in foreign supermarkets into India, which it was forced to reverse two weeks later after widespread protests and objections from the smaller parties it relies on to stay in power. India’s economy can seem like a bicycle—it needs to keep moving fast to be stable. Once conviction in the destination falters, companies curb investment and hope turns to fear that the country’s problems may be intractable.
An optimistic reading of these latest numbers is that they might force India’s politicians to move beyond the rancour of recent months and agree a program of reforms that would bolster confidence at home and abroad. But given a busy electoral cycle the odds of that seem poor. The concern now is that if growth slows a whole lot of other worries come to the fore, from potential bad debts in the banking system, the government’s poor fiscal position and the challenge of funding a current-account deficit when outside investors have got cold feet. Already the rupee has slid reflecting the last of those worries. India’s finances look solid when it is motoring along at close to double digits and weak when it is expanding at half that rate.
Given all this an uncomfortable burden of expectation now sits on the shoulders of the RBI, one of the few government institutions in India that commands respect, albeit grudgingly from some business folk. It could start cutting rates. But given inflation is still quite persistent, this would involve a theological U-turn. It has other tools available to try to ease the supply of credit, such as lowering the amount of cash banks must hold as reserves, creating room on their balance sheets to lend more. Unless there is a sudden change in government policy—or those statistics are shown to be cranky—action now seems likely. But as in the rich world, India may find that central banks cannot always work short-term economic miracles, nor sustain long-term ones all on their own.
The system records 0.6 trillion frames a second—good enough to follow the path of a laser beam as it bounces off objects.
· Wednesday, December 14, 2011
· By Tom Simonite
The system was developed by researchers led by Ramesh Raskar at MIT's Media Lab. Currently limited to a tabletop inside the group's lab, the camera can record what happens when very short pulses of laser light—lasting just 50 femtoseconds (50,000 trillionths of a second) long—hit objects in front of them. The camera captures the pulses bouncing between and reflecting off objects.
Raskar says the new camera could be used for novel kinds of medical imaging, tracking light inside body tissue. It could also enable novel kinds of photographic manipulation. In experiments, the camera has captured frames roughly 500 by 600 pixels in size.
The fastest scientific cameras on the market typically capture images at rates in the low millions of frames per second. They work similar to the way a consumer digital camera works, with a light sensor that converts light from the lens into a digital signal that's saved to disk.
The Media Lab researchers had to take a different approach, says Andreas Velten, a member of the research team. An electronic system's reaction time is inherently limited to roughly 500 picoseconds, he says, because it takes too long for electronic signals to travel along the wires and through the chips in such designs. "[Our shutter speed is] just under two picoseconds because we detect light with a streak camera, which gets around the electrical problem."
More typically used to measure the timing of laser pulses than for photography, a streak camera doesn't need any electronics to record light. Light entering the streak camera falls onto a specialized electrode—a photocathode—that converts the stream of photons into a matching stream of electrons. That electron beam hits a screen on the back of the streak camera that's covered with chemicals that light up wherever the beam falls. The same mechanism is at work in a traditional cathode ray tube TV set.
Because a streak camera can only view a very narrow line of a scene at one time, the MIT system uses mirrors to build up a full view. A conventional digital camera captures the images from the back of the streak camera, and these images are then compiled by software into the final output. Each image captured by the digital camera records only the tiny fraction of a beam's journey visible to the streak camera.
One result of this design is that videos captured by the team show the sequence of events as a laser pulse bounces around, but they don't capture the fate of a single pulse of light. Rather, they capture a sequence of snapshots from the actions of many successive, identical light pulses, thanks to tight synchronization between the light pulses and streak camera. "We need an event that is repeatable to create an image or video," says Velten.
That is in contrast to what is widely known as the "world's fastest camera," a system unveiled in 2009 by a research group at the University of California, Los Angeles, that captures 6.1 million frames per second and has a shutter speed of 163 nanoseconds, compared to the 1.7 picoseconds of the MIT group.
Because the MIT system can't image events that don't happen on a regular cycle, there are limits to what it can be used for, but Velten says there's still value in slowing down the usually unobservable movement of light.
One possible application is a new kind of medical imaging that Velten and Raskar call "ultrasound with light." That would involve firing laser pulses into tissue and using the camera's ability to record light movements beneath a surface to learn about structures and other information invisible using normal illumination and cameras. The potential for that can be seen in the group's videos, says Velten. "You can see reflections happening and light moving beneath the surface of objects."
The MIT research group previously used a similar setup to gather images from around corners, by bouncing a laser around a corner and then capturing any light that bounced back.
Srinivasa Narasimhan, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who researches computational photography, calls the MIT fast imaging system "amazing." He says physicists and chemists could use it to image very brief events and reactions, or to refine our understanding of how light interacts with objects. "We have known for a long time how to simulate light propagation," he says. "Now we can actually see light propagate and interact with the scene in slow motion to verify these things. Seeing is believing."
Because the MIT camera can see exactly how light interacts with a scene, it is also able to gather 3-D information that could be used to perform novel kinds of photographic manipulation, says Velten. "When you have that extra information about a scene, you can do things like change the lighting in a photo after you have taken it," he says. Startup company Lytro recently launched a camera that records the path that light takes in order to perform similar tricks.
The MIT system's impressive speed currently comes along with some bulk: the camera setup covers a dining table-sized bench, with the laser filling the space underneath. But Velten says the laser is over a decade old, and could be replaced by one roughly the size of a desktop computer. He adds that research is underway that will shrink the entire system to the size of a laptop.
Velten says the research team is now focusing on making the system more compact, identifying specific applications, and increasing the size of the images it collects. Further increasing the speed is a low priority, he says. "We're already looking at light moving, so there's no reason to go faster."
Elements 114 and 116 will likely be called flerovium, livermorium
Posted: Dec 2, 2011 9:58 AM ET
Last Updated: Dec 2, 2011 1:33 PM ET
The two new elements, which have the atomic numbers 114 and 116, were discovered by scientists in the U.S. and Russia. iStock
Names have been proposed for the two heaviest known chemical elements.
The elements, which have the atomic numbers 114 and 116, were officially recognized in June by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the organization that addresses international issues involving the chemical sciences, including nomenclature.
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory-Dubna collaboration, which discovered the two elements, have proposed that element 114 be named flerovium and given the atomic symbol Fl to honour the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions in Dubna, Russia, where a number of super-heavy elements, including element 114, were made.
They propose that element 116 be named livermorium and be given the atomic symbol Lv to honour Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.
Click for a larger image of the full periodic table, including elements 114 and 116, as well as some new elements that have not yet been officially accepted. (WikiMedia Commons)
The two names were announced Thursday by IUPAC president Nicole Moreau.
IUPAC said the names have been approved by its inorganic chemistry division.
Next, it will issue a provisional recommendation and allow five months for public comments before it heads for final approval by the IUPAC council.
While the heaviest element has an atomic number of 116, the official periodic table still contains only 114 elements because elements 113 and 115 haven't been officially accepted yet.
Two elements named to periodic table
The newly named elements fit in the 114 and 116 spots, down in the lower-right corner of the periodic table.
By Jennifer Welsh, LiveScience Fri, Dec 02 2011 at 1:57 PM EST
IT'S ELEMENTAL: Years after their discovery, the super-heavy elements 114 and 116 have finally been christened by their Russian and American discoverers. The elements have been named flerovium and livermoreium. (Image: Lawrence Livermore National Labs)
Chemistry's periodic table can now welcome livermorium and flerovium, two newly named elements, which were announced Thursday by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The new names will undergo a five-month public comment period before the official paperwork gets processed and they show up on the table.
Three other new elements just recently finished this process, filling in the 110, 111 and 112 spots.
All five of these elements are so large and unstable they can be made only in the lab, and they fall apart into other elements very quickly. Not much is known about these elements, since they aren't stable enough to do experiments on and are not found in nature. They are called "super heavy," or Transuranium, elements.
The newly named elements fit in the 114 and 116 spots, down in the lower-right corner of the periodic table, and were officially accepted to the periodic table back in June. They originally were synthesized more than 10 years ago, after which repeat experiments led to their confirmation.
Elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 have also been synthesized at Russia's Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, located in Dubna, Russia (about two hours drive from Moscow), but their creation hasn't been confirmed by the International Union yet. Once they have been confirmed, they will also have to go through the naming and public-commenting periods.
Both livermorium and flerovium were also synthesized at the same Russian lab, where Russian researchers were working with American researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Element 114, previously known as ununquadium, has been named flerovium (Fl), after the Russian institute's Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions founder, which similarly is named in honor of Georgiy Flerov (1913-1990), a Russian physicist. Flerov's work and his writings to Joseph Stalin led to the development of the USSR's atomic bomb project.
The researchers got their first glimpse at flerovium after firing calcium ions at a plutonium target.
Element 116, which was temporarily named ununhexium, almost ended up with the name moscovium in honor of the region (called an oblast, similar to a province or state) of Moscow, where the research labs are located. In the end, it seems the American researchers won out and the team settled on the name livermorium (Lv), after the national labs and the city of Livermore in which they are located. Livermorium was first observed in 2000, when the scientists created it by mashing together calcium and curium.
"Proposing these names for the elements honors not only the individual contributions of scientists from these laboratories to the fields of nuclear science, heavy-element research, and super-heavy-element research, but also the phenomenal cooperation and collaboration that has occurred between scientists at these two locations," Bill Goldstein, associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Labs' Physical and Life Sciences Directorate, said in a statement.
The names for the next batch of super-heavy atoms is still up for grabs, perhaps moscovium will make a comeback.
Those searching for the Higgs boson may at last have cornered their quarry
Dec 14th 2011 | from the print edition
WELL, they’ve found it. Possibly. Maybe. Pinning down physicists about whether they have actually discovered the Higgs boson is almost as hard as tracking down the elusive subatomic beast itself. Leon Lederman, a leading researcher in the field, once dubbed it the “goddamn” particle, because it has proved so hard to isolate. That name was changed by a sniffy editor to the “God” particle, and a legend was born. Headline writers loved it. Physicists loved the publicity. CERN, the world’s biggest particle-physics laboratory, and the centre of the hunt for the Higgs, used that publicity to help keep the money flowing.
And this week it may all have paid off. On December 13th two of the researchers at CERN’s headquarters in Geneva announced to a breathless world something that looks encouragingly Higgsy.
The Higgs boson, for those who have not been paying attention to the minutiae of particle physics over the past few years, is a theoretical construct dreamed up in 1964 by a British researcher, Peter Higgs (pictured above), and five other, less famous individuals. It is the last unobserved piece of the Standard Model, the most convincing explanation available for the way the universe works in all of its aspects except gravity (which is dealt with by the general theory of relativity).
The Standard Model (see table) includes familiar particles such as electrons and photons, and esoteric ones like the W and Z bosons, which carry something called the weak nuclear force. Most bosons are messenger particles that cement the others, known as fermions, together. They do so via electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces. The purpose of the Higgs boson, however, is different. It is to inculcate mass into those particles which weigh something. Without it, or something like it, some of the Standard Model’s particles that actually do have mass (particularly the W and Z bosons) would be predicted to be massless. Without it, in other words, the Standard Model would not work.
The announcement, by Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli—the heads, respectively, of two experiments at CERN known as ATLAS and CMS—was that both of their machines have seen phenomena which look like traces of the Higgs. They are traces, rather than actual bosons, because no Higgs will ever be seen directly. The best that can be hoped for are patterns of breakdown particles from Higgses that are, themselves, the results of head-on collisions between protons travelling in opposite directions around CERN’s giant accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Heavy objects like Higgs bosons can break down in several different ways, but each of these ways is predictable. Both ATLAS and CMS have seen a number of these predicted patterns often enough to pique interest, but not (yet) often enough to constitute proof that they came from Higgses, rather than being random fluctuations in the background of non-Higgs decays.
The crucial point, and the reason for the excitement, is that both ATLAS and CMS (which are located in different parts of the ring-shaped accelerator tunnel of the LHC) have come up with the same results. Both indicate that, if what they have seen really are Higgses, then the boson has a mass of about 125 giga-electron-volts (GeV), in the esoteric units which are used to measure how heavy subatomic particles are. That coincidence bolsters the suggestion that this is the real thing, rather than a few chance fluctuations.
It also bolsters physicists’ hopes for the future. The Standard Model, though it has stood the test of time, is held together by a number of mathematical kludges. Most of these would go away, and a far more elegant view of the world would emerge, if each of the particles in it had one or more heavier (and as-yet undiscovered) partner particles. The masses of these undiscovered partners, though, are related to the mass of the Higgs. The bigger it is, the bigger they are. And if they are too big, the LHC will not be able to find them, even in principle. Fortunately for the future of physics in general, and the LHC in particular, a Higgs of 125GeV is light enough for some of these particles to be found by the machine near Geneva.
Wake up, little Susy
This model of a world of heavy partner particles that shadows the familiar one built up by the Standard Model is called Supersymmetry, and testing it was the real purpose of building the LHC. The search for the Higgs is a search for closure on the old physical world. Susy, as Supersymmetry is known to aficionados, is the new. The particular superness of the symmetry which it proposes is that every known fermion is partnered with one or more hypothetical bosons, and every known boson with one or more fermions. These partnerships cancel out the kludges and leave a mathematically purer outcome. For this reason, Susy is top of the “what comes next” list in most physicists’ minds.
It might also answer a question that has puzzled physicists since the 1930s. This is: why do galaxies, which seem to rotate too fast for their own gravity to keep them in one piece, not fly apart? The answer always given is “dark matter”—something that has a gravitational field, but does not interact much via the three forces of the Standard Model. But that is simply to label it, not to explain it. No such particle is known, but Susy predicts some, and as they are the lightest of its predictions, they should (if they exist) be within the LHC’s range. If, that is, what Dr Gianotti and Dr Tonelli hope that they have seen is real.
It might not be. As Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN’s boss, once quipped, physicists know everything about the Higgs apart from whether it exists. Technically, that is still true. Despite their having analysed some 380 trillion collisions between protons since the LHC got cracking in earnest in 2010, CERN’s researchers have yet to see signs of the Higgs in an individual experiment that meet their exacting standard of having only one chance in 3.5m of being a fluke. The actual number at the moment is more like one in 2,000. But that does not take account of the coincidence between the results of the separate experiments. And more data are being crunched all the time, so it should not be long before the result is either confirmed or disproved.
If it is disproved there will, after all the brouhaha, no doubt be a period of chagrin. And then the search will resume, for there are still unexplored places out there where Dr Higgs’s prediction could be hiding. After a 47-year-long search, physicists would not give the hunt up that lightly.
By Ayesha Durgahee, CNN
Updated 9:10 AM EST, Thu November 24, 2011
London (CNN) -- A designer has come up with a unique and futuristic solution for speeding up rail travel: he doesn't want to change the engines, or the tracks -- he wants to get rid of the stations.
Determined to take rail transport into the 21st century, Paul Priestman, director of British design group Priestmangoode, is the man behind the "Moving Platforms" concept, which he believes could potentially revolutionize the rail industry.
His scheme would see travelers served by a carousel of trams and high-speed trains that would take passengers from their homes to their destinations without them ever having to use a bus, car or taxi.
Revolutionizing rail travel
"The idea with Moving Platforms is that ... if you were going on holiday or on business for instance, you could get onto a tram on your street and then seamlessly travel from that onto the high-speed line and then get off at your destination in another city, then onto a tram and then end up at your destination without ever having gone in your car or perhaps got on a bus," says Priestman.
"It's totally integrated into a sort of larger transport system," he adds.
The idea is to have a city-wide network of trams that travel in a loop and connect with a high-speed rail service.
The trams speed up and the high-speed train slows down and they join, so they dock at high speed.
But instead of passengers having to get off the tram at a rail station and wait for the next HSR service to arrive, the moving tram would "dock" with a moving train, allowing passengers to cross between tram and train without either vehicle ever stopping.
"The trams speed up and the high-speed train slows down and they join, so they dock at high speed," explains Priestman.
"They stay docked for the same amount of time that it would stop at a station," he adds.
"There are big doors, there are wide doors, they're all the same level so you can seamlessly go between the two vehicles quite peacefully; there's no hurry.
"Then, when everyone's done that, the doors shut and then the trains separate and the tram then goes back into the city or town and picks up more passengers and drops off passengers."
Instead of using paper tickets to pass through a barrier, passengers would used an RFID (radio-frequency identification) system to transfer from tram to train. Similar systems that let passengers scan pre-paid smartcards are already used on many public transport networks.
While Priestman admits that it will be some time before his vision could be implemented, he says the time has come to rethink how we travel.
"This idea is a far-future thought but wouldn't it be brilliant to just re-evaluate and just re-think the whole process?" he says.
Your Intelligence Level Can Fluctuate, Studies Show; Battling the Post-Vacation Dip
NOVEMBER 29, 2011
Many people think of IQ as a genetic trait like eye color, something you're born with and stuck with for life. But as Sue Shellenbarger explains on Lunch Break, evidence is mounting that IQ can change over an individual's lifetime.
Many people think of IQ as a genetic trait, like brown eyes or short legs: You're born with it and you're stuck with it. Now, a growing body of research is showing that a person's IQ can rise—and even fall—over the years.
Scores can change gradually or quickly, after as little as a few weeks of cognitive training, research shows. The increases are usually so incremental that they're not immediately perceptible to individuals, and the intelligence-boosting effects of cognitive training can fade after a few months.
In the latest study, 33 British students were given IQ tests and brain scans at ages 12 to 16 and again about four years later by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London; 9% of the students showed a significant change of 15 points or more in IQ scores.
On a scale where 90 to 110 is considered average, one student's IQ rose 21 points to 128 from 107, lifting the student from the 68th percentile to the 97th compared with others the same age, says Cathy Price, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the center and co-author of the study, published last month in Nature. Another student's score skidded out of the "high average" category, to 96 from 114.
Swings in individual IQ scores are often written off as the product of measurement error or a test subject having a bad day. But MRIs in this study showed changes in gray matter in areas corresponding to fluctuations in the kids' skills, Dr. Price says. Although the sample size is small, the study drew wide attention because it is among the first to show how changes in IQ scores may be reflected in actual shifts in brain structure.
Testing Cognitive Skills
Pre-employment tests measure some cognitive abilities that are similar to those gauged by IQ tests and are used for selecting employees for many kinds of jobs. Try some sample questions.
Take the Test
Try some sample questions from various IQ tests.
"There are many myths about IQ, such as the notion that IQ is a fixed number or that it is a crystal ball for future performance," says Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards for the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md.
The first reliable tests of intelligence in the U.S. were published in the early 1900s, says Alan S. Kaufman, clinical professor of psychology at Yale University and co-author of several IQ tests. Scores compare people to others of the same age based on a wide range of cognitive questions and tasks, from processing information and analyzing patterns, to solving age-appropriate math problems and recalling facts or vocabulary. A score in the 90 to 110 range is considered average. A "genius" may score 140 and above, he says.
IQ tests have been a target of ongoing criticism. Their use led to the misclassification of many children as "intellectually disabled" in the 1970s and 1980s. Similar cognitive tests used by employers to screen recruits have been attacked as discriminatory against African-American and Hispanic job candidates.
Today in schools, individual IQ-type tests are limited mainly to helping plan instruction for some children with specific learning disabilities and helping identify students for gifted programs. Kathleen Lundquist, president of APTMetrics, a Darien, Conn., human-resources consulting firm, says cognitive tests in the workplace today are often revised to eliminate adverse effects on minorities and are most often used as a screening tool for entry-level jobs.
There are practical steps people can take to see longer-term IQ changes. A 30-year study at the National Institute of Mental Health found that people whose work involves complex relationships, setting up elaborate systems or dealing with people or difficult problems, tend to perform better over time on cognitive tests. Test scores of people whose jobs are simple and require little thought actually tend to decline, according to the research, published in 1999 in Psychology and Aging.
New tasks stimulate the brain most. When researchers at the University of Hamburg subjected 20 young adults to one month of intense training in juggling, they found an increase in the corresponding gray matter in the brain as early as seven days after the training began. The added gray matter receded when the training was stopped, although the participants were still able to juggle, says the study, published in 2008 in PLoS One.
IQ tests don't measure such abilities as creativity, common sense or social sensitivity. They do assess many kinds of knowledge and abilities, including abstract reasoning skills. Rising scores in abstract reasoning are the main reason average IQ scores have been increasing by about three points every decade since the 1930s, based on studies by James Flynn, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. That may be partly because children spend nearly twice as many years in school, on average, than children decades ago, says Wendy M. Williams, a professor in the department of human development at Cornell University.
Albert Einstein (Everett Collection)
Fluctuations in IQ scores over time underscore the brain-boosting benefits of a complex job, musical training, advanced schooling and new experiences throughout a lifetime.
Schooling in general raises IQ by several points a year, based on research by Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell, and others. "If you look at an IQ test, it asks things like, 'Who wrote Hamlet?' or 'Why do we pay for postage?' You are most likely to come across the answers in school," Dr. Ceci says. Even nonverbal abilities such as solving puzzles and spatial tasks may blossom because math classes today include visual reasoning with matrices, mazes, blocks or designs, he adds.
Intense training can raise scores. Using a method called "n-back," researchers at the University of Michigan had young adults practice recalling letter sequences by flashing a series of letters on a screen and asking them to press a key whenever they saw the same letter that appeared "n" times earlier, such as one or two times.
Training for about 25 minutes a day for eight to 19 days was linked to higher scores on tests of fluid intelligence, with gains increasing with the duration of the training, says Susanne Jaeggi, co-author of the study, published in 2008 in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.
The gains tend to fade after practice stops, based on studies of children, Dr. Jaeggi says. "You need some booster sessions" to maintain improvements, she says. Other research has found training people to switch mental tasks quickly also can lift scores.
Music lessons are linked to higher IQ throughout life, according to research by E. Glenn Schellenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Six years' lessons lifted children's IQ scores an average 7.5 points; those gains eroded to two points by college age, says a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Educational Psychology.
In a study this year, researchers at the University of Kansas found practicing musicians who are active for a decade or more continue to post higher IQs beyond age 60.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com
BAGHDAD — The American war in Iraq came to an unspectacular end Thursday at a simple ceremony held on the edge of Baghdad’s international airport, not far from the highway along which U.S. troops first fought their way into the capital more than eight years ago.
There were speeches paying tribute to the fallen, promises that the United States would not abandon Iraq, vague declarations of “success” and warnings of challenges ahead. A brass band played, and the flag that had flown over the headquarters of the U.S. mission here was lowered for the last time and folded away.
And that was it. No pronouncements of victory, no cheers or jubilation — only a profound sense that the war’s real reckoning is yet to come, even as the American part in it draws to a close.
No senior Iraqi government officials showed up for the event, though the name tags attached to two chairs in the front row indicated American hopes that they might. One was labeled for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the other for President Jalal Talabani.
The only prominent Iraqis to attend were a former defense minister and three generals who have worked closely alongside U.S. forces and have often expressed hope that they would remain.
It was a reminder that for all the declarations of progress, the troops are leaving primarily because most Iraqis wanted them to go, despite the significant lingering concerns about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and the country’s still-precarious political balance.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the sixth and last general to command American forces in Iraq, alluded to those uncertainties when he spoke of the “opportunities” U.S. troops had created for Iraqis to live freely and prosper, without sounding at all sure that they will.
But he also warned that militant groups may yet disrupt the gains the Iraqi security forces have made in recent years, at a time when the turmoil of the Arab revolts threatens to reignite Iraq’s sectarian tensions and fuel regional rivalries.
“There’s no doubt this is a challenging time for Iraq and its neighbors,” Austin told a small group of U.S. troops and dignitaries gather within an encirclement of fortified concrete. “But Iraq has the opportunity to assume a position of leadership if it follows the right path.’’
For many Iraqis, too, it was an ambivalent conclusion to the upheaval of the past eight years, which has transformed their country beyond recognition without, in the eyes of many, significantly improving their lives. More than 100,000 Iraqis died in the bloodshed that followed the invasion, and though violence is greatly reduced, bombings and assassinations remain a daily occurrence.
On the streets of Baghdad, residents overwhelmingly said that they were glad the U.S. troops were going home, but some also seemed nervous that the departure of the Americans could rekindle latent power struggles and perhaps intensify the violence.
“Sooner or later, the American flag had to be taken down because it is unacceptable to live in the shadow of their flag,” said businessman Qais al-Lami, 39. “So I’m happy they’re leaving because they are occupiers.
“But also I’m not happy, because now all the political parties and the militias will become more aggressive in asserting their power, and the security situation could get worse.”
In the Sunni town of Fallujah, scene of the biggest pitched battle of the war, between Marines and insurgents in 2004, relief at the U.S. departure was tempered by concerns that the Shiite-led government will crack down on members of the Sunni minority.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke at a ceremony to formally shut down the war in Iraq. There are about 4,000 U.S. troops left in Iraq. (Dec. 15)
Faces of the fallen
“What’s the point of lighting a candle at the beginning of a tunnel when you know you will be walking in darkness?” asked Bashar al-Nadeq, 32, explaining why he won’t celebrate the departure of the troops, even as he rejoices that they are going.
The persistent dangers were underscored by the strict security measures surrounding the U.S. ceremony and the small scale of the farewell pageantry. Visitors’ badges carried numbers identifying which bunkers they should access in the event of a rocket attack. The date was kept secret for months to prevent insurgents from targeting the site.
U.S. commanders had openly urged Iraqi leaders to extend the American military’s presence beyond the agreed Dec. 31 deadline, so that they could continue to train the Iraqi security forces, build the country’s almost-nonexistent conventional defenses and allow more time for the wobbly political consensus forged after elections last year to solidify.
But in a rare display of consensus, Iraq’s usually squabbling factions united to insist that U.S. troops could stay only if they were subject to Iraqi law, a condition that the American military had made clear from the outset would not be acceptable.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the most senior U.S. official at the ceremony, told those who attended that America’s role in Iraq is by no means over. He referred to a $6 billion effort being undertaken by the State Department to sustain U.S. influence now that the military role has ended.
“Challenges remain, but the U.S. will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation,” he told the gathering.
A newly established Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSCI), under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy, will retain 157 military personnel to continue to help train the Iraqi security forces. The State Department will also employ thousands of private security contractors to assume many of the functions that had been performed by the military and cannot be dispensed with given the dangerous conditions.
The air terminal where the ceremony was held is a former military facility that henceforth will be operated by the embassy. The State Department will also run a fleet of 80 MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) armored fighting vehicles to transport diplomats, using civilians who have been taught by the military to drive them.
The ceremony effectively ends the war two weeks earlier than was necessary under the terms of the security agreement signed by the U.S. and Iraqi governments in 2008, which stipulated that the troops must be gone by Dec. 31.
But U.S. commanders decided that there was no need to keep soldiers in Iraq through the Christmas holidays once the talks on extending the American troop presence beyond the deadline failed. Within days, all of the 4,500 troops who remain — most of them only to guard the ceremony and the exit routes out of the country — will be gone.
Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi 221005, UP