Sunday, 4 July 2010

On Fourth of July, Let Iraq Go

Posted by Juan Cole on July 4, 2010
The Fourth of July celebrates the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies of Great Britain, on the grounds that they deserved representative government and popular sovereignty– something denied to them by the British crown.

Iraq was occupied by American troops in 2003 after an illegal invasion, and it is still so occupied. The viceroy appointed by George W. Bush, Paul Bremer, had no legal charter from the US Congress and represented no one, having never been elected to anything. He wrote dozens of laws for the Iraqis by fiat. They are still technically the law of the land in Iraq. He used Iraq’s oil revenue, billions of dollars worth, to run his interim government, even though no Iraqi voted to give it to him for that purpose. In subsequent years the US intervened heavy-handedly in Iraqi political affairs and still does so today. Few complaints of the Founding Fathers against Britain could not be lodged against the United States by Iraq.

All through spring of 2009, US officers in Iraq heavily lobbied the new president, Barack Obama, not to honor the Status of Forces Agreement that George W. Bush had negotiated with the Iraqi parliament during his last months in office. It called for troop reductions. The officers opposed them. It called for US forces to cease actively patrolling major Iraqi cities on June 30, 2009. the officers said that step was foolhardy, and would make it impossible to keep up their collection of intelligence on urban guerrillas. It called for rapid US troop reductions. The officers argued that Iraq would fall back into instability.

Obama stuck to his guns, and the US soldiers stopped patrolling the cities independently on June 30, 2009. In July of that year, the number of attacks by guerrillas and the number of civilians killed both fell by one third. It appears that the patrols were causing violence, not stopping it, since the guerrillas attacked the patrols and ended up killing civilians.

The troop withdrawal also proceeded apace throughout the past year. Although Iraq remains in a low-intensity civil war, the monthly death toll of civilians and security forces averages 300-400 now, compared to 2500 a month in summer of 2006. At the height of the troop escalation or surge there were around 170,000 US troops in Iraq. Today there are about 88,000 and the number is rapidly falling.

Everything the naysayers in the Pentagon alleged about the effect of implementing the SOFA was wrong.

Now unnamed sources in Iraq are leaking again to the New York Times. They want to insist that the timetable for troop withdrawal in the SOFA is unrealistic. They cannot imagine that US troops will really leave by the end of 2011. They are sure that the SOFA will be renegotiated by the new Iraqi government whenever it is finally formed.

While the SOFA could be tinkered with, there are powerful forces working against that outcome. The Sadrists, fundamentalist Shiites who follow cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, may well be kingmakers of the new government, and they are dead set against any change to the SOFA timetables. The Sadrists are highly politically networked and their relative success in the March 7 parliamentary elections attests to their political strength even today. They could prove spoilers of any attempt by the US to drag its feet on withdrawal, since they can put thousands of protesters and hundreds of guerrillas in the street.

Nor is the threat only of renewed political unrest among Sadrists if the US stays in force. Al-Hayat reported on May 24, “The local government in Basra announced yesterday its commitment to the security agreement signed by Iraq and the United States for scheduling the US forces’ withdrawal. The announcement came in reply to statements by Al-Sadr Trend in the governorate about preparing its armed wing “Al-Mahdi Army” to resume the resistance activity against the remaining forces in the governorate and to wait for orders to do this from Trend Leader Muqtada al-Sadr.”

It is true that the 50,000 or so troops that will be left in Iraq as of September may not all be ‘non-combat’ units, since there will be some rebranding. And it is true that Iraq will need the US air force for years to come, for logistics purposes. But to say that the timetable will be tinkered with at the request of the Iraqi parliament in any major way is wishful thinking.

The US commanders were expecting to be asked by the Iraqi officers to go on joint patrols in the major cities. They got few invitations, even though they had trained many of the Iraqi officers who now gave them the cold shoulder. The new Iraqi military is perfectly capable of patrolling on its own now in cities such as Baghdad, and of facing down any ordinary threat from militias. The US is not needed for routine security patrols. While the Iraqi troops have not been able to establish order in Mosul or in Diyala Province, the prospect of the dwindling number of US troops doing so is slim to none. Iraq is just going to be a little unstable for a few years, and even if US troops stayed in numbers past the deadlines, it is highly unlikely that they could miraculously lend the place stability. Bush knocked Iraq off balance, and it will likely remain off balance for a good long time. Bush was not authorized by the Iraqi people to destroy the country. He was acting more like his namesake, King George III, than like a president who won an election.

Moreover, as the US military has increasingly focused on Afghanistan, many will realize that they just don’t have the resources to continue in Iraq.

Iraqi factions are finding it hard to form a government in the wake of the March 7 parliamentary elections. But they have a perfectly good interim government, that of incumbent Nuri al-Maliki, in the meantime. And it took Lebanon 5 months to form a government recently. The Lebanon case is instructive because the national unity government that came out of months of wrangling is fairly representative and seems to have forestalled further trouble of the sort we saw in May 2008. Vice President Biden may or may not succeed in helping the factions make progress during his visit to Baghdad this weekend, but contrary to what some American politicians say, there is no reason the process of government-formation cannot be protracted. Consensus is better in Iraqi politics than up-and-down-votes that cause some faction to lose and to lose face.

For the pragmatic reason that the US cannot afford Iraq, and because it is the right thing to do, the Obama administration should withdraw in a systematic and deliberate manner from Iraq. We owe its people their independence. It is what we used, at least, to stand for.

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