How Alone It is in Iraq
- The U.S. Doesn't Know How Alone It is in Iraq
Friends Like These
By PATRICK COCKBURN
Over the past five years, America and its Iraqi allies have pointed
triumphantly at a series of spurious milestones meant to mark turning
points on the road to stability and security. But the ongoing
stalemate over a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which the
Iraqi government refuses to sign despite intense American pressure,
marks a true turning point in the conflict: it is a clear sign that
American political influence in Iraq is weaker than ever.
It is the first time that an Iraqi government has rebuffed the US on
a crucial issue since the invasion of 2003. The agreement, the
subject of prolonged and divisive negotiations since March, was
rejected by the Iraqi cabinet and is unlikely to be submitted to
parliament in its present form. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al
Maliki, who could not have obtained nor held his job without American
backing, says he will not sign it as it is.
Meanwhile the US is increasingly desperate to conclude the status
agreement before the UN mandate that legalises the US occupation runs
out at the end of the year. The US ambassador Ryan Crocker petulantly
threatened that without an agreement "we do nothing no security
training, no logistical support, no border protection, no training,
equipping, manning checkpoints, no nothing." President Bush has
himself pushed hard for the accord over the last eight months without
success. His failure to secure the pact shows that the US is unable
to get its way despite exaggerated claims of military success by the
White House and the Pentagon.
The accord that has been rejected is markedly less favourable to the
US than the original draft that was first discussed in March. The
Americans, who could have presented the agreement to the Iraqis as a
means of bringing the occupation to an end or eliminating its most
objectionable aspects, instead produced a blank cheque that suggested
no limit to the number of American troops in the country and no date
for eventual withdrawal.
The March draft was a typical example of the US tendency to overplay
its hand in Iraq, where the agreement was denounced as a successor to
the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty that gave Britain de facto control over a
nominally independent Iraq. The draft provoked a nationalist
backlash, and many Iraqi politicians who supported the agreement did
so covertly for fear of being labelled American pawns.
The final draft of the accord agreed by negotiators on October 13 was
very different. By then the Bush administration had been forced to
concede a timetable for an American military withdrawal: combat
troops were to leave Iraqi cities, towns and villages by the end of
June 2009, and all American forces were to depart by the end of 2011.
Contractors lost their immunity from Iraqi law. The US tried to make
the military retreat from Iraq conditional on the security situation
at the time, but by the end of the negotiations even this had been
Nothing better illuminates the real political landscape in Iraq and
the absurdity of the fantasies pumped out in Washington and broadly
accepted in the US than the concessions forced on the Americans.
The American problem in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein
has always been political rather than military. Simply put, the
Americans have had too few friends in Iraq, and their allies have
sided with the US for tactical reasons alone. The majority Shia
community initially co-operated with the US in order to achieve
political domination, and it needed American military force to crush
the Sunni Arab uprising of 2004-7. But the Shia leaders always wanted
power for themselves and never intended to share it with the
Americans in the long term. The Sunni guerrillas did surprisingly
well against the American army, but their community was decisively
defeated in the bloody battle for Baghdad fought by government death
squads and sectarian militias. It was this defeat and not simply
hostility to al Qa'eda in Iraq that led the Sunni rebels to seek
their own alliance with the US.
I was in Baghdad during the first half of October and then flew to
New York. Never has there been such a deep gap between what Americans
think is happening in Iraq and the reality on the ground. Senator
John McCain keeps celebrating the supposed triumph of the "surge",
and seems to imagine that "victory in Iraq" is now in sight. His
exotic running mate Sarah Palin sneers at the "defeatist" Barack
Obama. And Obama, afraid to appear unpatriotic, has recanted his
earlier doubts about the surge and attempted to avoid discussion of
Iraq in general. With American voters understandably absorbed by the
financial crash and coming depression, attention to events in Iraq
has evaporated: the American media have barely mentioned the
rejection of the SOFA.
In New York I found it strange that so many people believed the surge
had brought an end to violence in Iraq. It was a curious sort of
military victory, I observed, that required more troops in Iraq
today 152,000 than before the surge began. The best barometer for
the real state of security in Iraq, I kept telling people, is the
behaviour of the 4.7 million Iraqi refugees inside and outside the
country. Many are living in desperate circumstances but dare not go
home. Ask an Iraqi in Baghdad how things are, and he may well
say "better". But he means better than the bloodbath of two years
ago: "better" does not mean "good".
Driving around Baghdad I tried to avoid particularly dangerous areas
like Tahrir Square in the centre of the city. This turned out to be
very sensible: a few days after I left, a suicide car bomb attack
there on the convoy of the Labour and Social Affairs minister killed
12. The suicide bomber had reached Tahrir Square despite the fact
that there are military and police checkpoints every hundred yards
and gigantic traffic jams throughout the city. There is now a little
more activity after dark, particularly in Karada and Jadriyah
districts, but Baghdad is still the most dangerous city in the world.
The government should be able to do better. It has money. Reserves
total $79 billion. The state is vast and employs some two million
people. But it is also dysfunctional. Government employees like
teachers and army officers are better paid but half the population is
unemployed. The Labour and Social Affairs Ministry, the head of which
was so nearly assassinated, is meant to help millions of impoverished
Iraqis but has only spent 10 per cent of its budget. The private
sector is languishing. One sure sign of economic activity is cranes,
but in Baghdad I do not recall seeing a single one of them aside from
those rusting beside Saddam Hussein's uncompleted mosques.
The inability of the Iraqi government, many of whose members have
long co-operated with the US, to reach a new accord with the US
underlines a simple truth about Iraqi politics. The occupation has
never been popular. The only part of the country where it is
acceptable is Kurdistan, which has never been occupied by US forces.
Some Sunni Arabs, under pressure from the Shia, may now look to the
US as their protectors, but overall Iraqis blame the occupation for
their present miseries. Dislike of the occupation is so great that
many Shia politicians think they would be signing their political
death warrant to go along with it though they are also nervous
about coping without American military support.
The Kurds say privately that Maliki is overconfident. This may be so,
but he has a strong hand. It is too late for the Americans to try
replace him. He owes his greatest triumph facing down the Mahdi
Army of Muqtada al Sadr in Basra, Sadr City and Amara earlier this
year as much to Iranian restraint of the Sadrists as to American
military support. It would be dangerous for him to make an enemy of
Iran by signing a deal to which they are vehemently and openly
Maliki seems to have been of two minds about the SOFA: uncertain
whether the greater danger is signing or not signing. He is looking
ahead to the provincial and parliamentary elections next year when he
will want to present himself as a patriotic Iraqi leader who stood up
to the Americans. If he does not then the Sadrists and possibly the
Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq will denounce him as an American pawn.
The danger in Iraq is that neither McCain nor Obama seem to
understand how far the US position in Iraq has weakened this year or
why Iraq refuses to sign the security accord. The overselling of the
surge as a great victory means that few Americans see that they are
increasingly without allies in Iraq. The US no longer makes the
political weather there. No matter who inherits the White House,
American military retreat is now inevitable. The only question that
remains is who will hold power in Baghdad after they have gone.
Patrick Cockburn is the Ihe author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the
Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National
(www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.
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