Posted on 08/24/2012 by Juan Cole
Gregg Muttitt writes at Tomdispatch:
Mission Accomplished for Big Oil?
How an American Disaster Paved the Way for Big Oil’s Rise — and Possible Fall — in Iraq
By Greg Muttitt
In 2011, after nearly nine years of war and occupation, U.S. troops finally left Iraq. In their place, Big Oil is now present in force and the country’s oil output, crippled for decades, is growing again. Iraq recently reclaimed the number two position in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), overtaking oil-sanctioned Iran. Now, there’s talk of a new world petroleum glut. So is this finally mission accomplished?
Well, not exactly. In fact, any oil company victory in Iraq is likely to prove as temporary as George W. Bush’s triumph in 2003. The main reason is yet another of those stories the mainstream media didn’t quite find room for: the role of Iraqi civil society. But before telling that story, let’s look at what’s happening to Iraqi oil today, and how we got from the “no blood for oil” global protests of 2003 to the present moment.
Here, as a start, is a little scorecard of what’s gone on in Iraq since Big Oil arrived two and a half years ago: corruption’s skyrocketed; two Western oil companies are being investigated for either giving or receiving bribes; the Iraqi government is paying oil companies a per-barrel fee according to wildly unrealistic production targets they’ve set, whether or not they deliver that number of barrels; contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab.
Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and equipment smashed, leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.
In Kurdistan in the north, the regional government awards contracts on land outside its jurisdiction, contracts which permit the government to transfer its stake in the oil projects — up to 25% — to private companies of its choice. Fuel is smuggled across the border to the tune of hundreds of tankers a day.
In Kurdistan, at least the approach is deliberate: the two ruling families of the region, the Barzanis and Talabanis, know that they can do whatever they like, since their Peshmerga militia control the territory. In contrast, the Iraqi federal government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has little control over anything. As a result, in the rest of the country the oil industry operates, gold-rush-style, in an almost complete absence of oversight or regulation.
Oil companies differ as to which of these two Iraqs they prefer to operate in. BP and Shell have opted to rush for black gold in the super-giant oilfields of southern Iraq. Exxon has hedged its bets by investing in both options. This summer, Chevron and the French oil company Total voted for the Kurdish approach, trading smaller oil fields for better terms and a bit more stability.
Keep in mind that the incapacity of the Iraqi government is hardly limited to the oil business: stagnation hangs over its every institution. Iraqis still have an average of just five hours of electricity a day, which in 130-degree heat causes tempers to boil over regularly. The country’s two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, which watered the cradle of civilization 5,000 years ago, are drying up. This is largely due to the inability of the government to engage in effective regional diplomacy that would control upstream dam-building by Turkey.
After elections in 2010, the country’s leading politicians couldn’t even agree on how to form a government until the Iraqi Supreme Court forced them to. This record of haplessness, along with rampant corruption, significant repression, and a revival of sectarianism can all be traced back to American decisions in the occupation years. Tragically, these persistent ills have manifested themselves in a recent spate of car-bombings and other bloody attacks.
Washington’s Yen for Oil
In the period before and around the invasion, the Bush administration barely mentioned Iraqi oil, describing it reverently only as that country’s “patrimony.” As for the reasons for war, the administration insisted that it had barely noticed Iraq had one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves. But my new book reveals documents I received, marked SECRET/NOFORN, that laid out for the first time pre-war oil plans hatched in the Pentagon by arch-neoconservative Douglas Feith’s Energy Infrastructure Planning Group (EIPG).
In November 2002, four months before the invasion, that planning group came up with a novel idea: it proposed that any American occupation authority not repair war damage to the country’s oil infrastructure, as doing so “could discourage private sector involvement.” In other words, it suggested that the landscape should be cleared of Iraq’s homegrown oil industry to make room for Big Oil.
When the administration worried that this might disrupt oil markets, EIPG came up with a new strategy under which initial repairs would be carried out by KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. Long-term contracts with multinational companies, awarded by the U.S. occupation authority, would follow. International law notwithstanding, the EIPG documents noted cheerily that such an approach would put “long-term downward pressure on [the oil] price” and force “questions about Iraq’s future relations with OPEC.”
At the same time, the Pentagon planning group recommended that Washington state that its policy was “not to prejudice Iraq’s future decisions regarding its oil development policies.” Here, in writing, was the approach adopted in the years to come by the Bush administration and the occupation authorities: lie to the public while secretly planning to hand Iraq over to Big Oil.
There turned out, however, to be a small kink in the plan: the oil companies declined the American-awarded contracts, fearing that they would not stand up in international courts and so prove illegitimate. They wanted Iraq first to have an elected permanent government that would arrive at the same results. The question then became how to get the required results with the Iraqis nominally in charge. The answer: install a friendly government and destroy the Iraqi oil industry.
Keep reading Just Deserts: Iraqis get Iraq's Oil, not Bush/Cheney (Muttitt)
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Posted on 07/01/2012 by Juan Cole
The Neocons, masters of disinformation, keep trying to put it about (and it is in the current Wikipedia article on me) that I somehow was initially supportive of the idea of going to war with Iraq. I was not. I thought it was a horrible idea and would end badly. Basically my position was the same as the French government then, and I said so. I was going through my private email archives for January, 2003, and pulled out some excellent contemporary evidence for my opposition to the idea, below. Early in the history of Informed Comment I had set up an email announcement board, firstname.lastname@example.org, to which I sent extra material that did not necessarily appear at the blog. Most of the messages below are from that board and so were quite public. The politics of reputation is not without an impact on one’s life. This smear (via Wikipedia) last winter caused a conference organizer to be attacked for inviting such a warmonger as myself. Since I took so many lumps for opposing the war in its early years when it was mysteriously popular in the United States, it is ironic that Karl Rove tactics could succeed in turning all this on its head.
It strikes me that with all the unknowns of January, 2003, I also was pretty good at calling the dangers.
I have addressed these issues before, to little avail. It is one reason I think wikipedia is sucky.
Maybe this file will help set the record straight (though what was already on the blog was clear enough).
Sat Jan 18 02:34:32 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Chirac warns on Iraq
French President Jacques Chirac issued a blunt and forceful warning today to the Bush administration that for it to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq without a second, explicit UN Security Council resolution would constitute a breach
of international law. Too right! It is absolutely unacceptable that the Bush administration should act in such a high-handed manner, and can only have bad repercussions on the US throughout the world. It is a horrible idea. Launching a war with a security council resolution is risky enough! But at least then it would have some legitimacy.
From ???@??? Wed Jan 15 02:14:21 2003
X-Mailer: QUALCOMM Windows Eudora Version 4.3
From: Juan Cole
Date: Wed, 15 Jan 2003 01:49:03 -0500
Subject: Re: Iraq
I don’t think there is much doubt that the US will go to war against Iraq this spring. I’d say the chances are 90%. And, I think this was decided on very early in the Bush administration as a plan, but only became feasible given the public mood after 9/11 and given that Afghanistan went so well.
There were two chances to stop it. One was the congressional vote last fall. The other was the Security Council vote in November. Probably only the Congressional vote could have effectively derailed it.
There is nothing in the world to stop Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld from going through with this now. Powell would probably like a second UN resolution, but the administration does not really need that.
Wed Jan 29 02:58:49 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
* Iraqi Vice President Tariq Aziz has warned Kuwait that Iraq would not rule out hitting it if it allows US troops to launch an invasion of Iraq from its soil. Such complicity, he said, would make this action legitimate. (It is not clear exactly what Aziz is threatening to do. However, if it involved the deliberate targetting of civilian populations, it would not be legitimate; it would be a war crime. Aziz should be careful; he may find himself in the docket.)
*Jabir al-Mubarak al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Minister of Defense, said he was not surprised by this threat, and that it revealed the sort of intentions Iraq had toward its neighbors. He pledged that the Kuwait armed forces stood ready to repel any threat. (Kuwait is a nice little country, but I’m afraid its armed forces aren’t exactly up to this, and that it is the American umbrella that emboldens the minister).
*Saddam Hussein asked his generals to be vigilant against traitors in their midst who might sell out to the Americans. He saw the same reports the rest of us did, that the Saudis and other neighbors have been trying to convince someone to make a coup and depose Saddam so as to avert the looming war. (I wouldn’t hold my breath. Saddam is not the resigning kind; he is a genocidal megalomaniac. And all the generals who even thought about a coup are pushing up daisies. Of course, if he and his circle of Tikritis actually cared about the country and the people they have looted and brutalized, they would go into exile. But they aren’t that sort of person to begin with, which is one of the reasons we stand on the brink of war).
*Newsday reports that US Vice President Dick Cheney and special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have been working to expand the expatriate committee of Iraqi politicians primed to succeed Saddam Hussein from 65 to 100, so as to dilute the influence of the pro-Iran bloc of 15 members from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Khalilzad is said to envisage a situation where policy makers will be drawn from the committee, but technocats from inside Iraq will also be given power if they are untainted by association with Saddam Hussein. Khalilzad is said to recognize that since some 60 percent of Iraqis are Shi`ite, a similar proportion of high government officials will be. But apparently he has come to realize that SCIRI’s support inside Iraq may actually be shallow. Many Iraqi Shi`ites are secularists. Apparently he will be looking for such secular Shi`ite technocrats as a counter-ballast to the clerical SCIRI.
One problem: If SCIRI’s troops, the 15,000-man al-Badr Brigade, plays a “northern-alliance” type role in this new Iraq war, it may well be positioned to garner enormous political power in the aftermath despite the planning on paper going on now. A SCIRI dominated Iraq would be a huge gift to the clerical hardliners in Tehran, and it has long puzzled me why the Bush administration was putting so many eggs in that basket. Now they are backing off, causing a furore. . .
*Bush’s State of the Union address gave specifics about what weapons of mass destruction the US thinks Saddam has and what he would have to prove he has destroyed to satisfy the Bush administration: 25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents; mobile biological weapons labs designed to produce germ warfare agents. But the wording was a little unclear, since the president kept saying Iraq had had materials sufficient to produce these quantities of these weapons, but seemed to sidestep the question as to whether it actually had done so. Apparently the anthrax and some of the chemicals were provided to Iraq in the 1980s by the Reagan administration to ensure that Iran did not win the Iran-Iraq war. I suppose that is how this administration is so sure Iraq has this stuff; it has people serving in it who provided the material to Saddam. Anyway, it seems clear to me that Bush is set on war. They are saying now it might not be until mid-March. . .
Wed Jan 29 11:43:49 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Re: Fwd: Iraqi defectors?
Bush specifically mentioned information from Iraqi defectors as the basis for some of his WMD charges.
Since some of the defectors were scientists working for Saddam, they should know what they are talking about. On the other hand, they have a vested interest in overthrowing Saddam, and so may be tempted to exaggerate. As an example, Khidir Hamza insists that Saddam is very close to having a nuclear capability, but al-Baradei says the inspectors cannot find evidence that this is so. Since a nuclear program would require hundreds of scientists and lots of equipment and facilities, and would be awfully hard to hide from al-Baradei.
It seems to me that it would be easy enough to pass the defectors’ specific allegations over to the inspectors for verification, and that way we would know for sure.
Of course, one problem is that there hasn’t to my knowledge been much defection since 1998, and many of the defectors came before then, so that their information is old. There would have been time to move stockpiles and some may genuinely have been destroyed (or not created in the first place, since Bush kept talking about the *potential* for producing them).
This is what I said today:
Bush’s State of the Union address gave specifics about what weapons of mass destruction the US thinks Saddam has and what he would have to prove he has destroyed to satisfy the Bush administration: 25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents; mobile biological weapons labs designed to produce germ warfare agents. But the wording was a little unclear, since the president kept saying Iraq had had materials sufficient to produce these quantities of these weapons, but seemed to sidestep the question as to whether it actually had done so.
Thu Jan 30 12:21:18 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Re: Iraq WMD – Potential or Actual?
Yes, I saw that. I am fairly cynical about all this. Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz and Condi have wanted a war on Iraq for a long time, and the WMD stuff makes a nice pretext. I have concluded it is mainly about power politics; these “American Nationalists” just won’t put up with sass.
Thu Jan 30 13:44:34 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: 30 Jan. 2003
*The question was raised on a list of what would happen if the US invaded Iraq and found there were not weapons of mass destruction there. I fear I replied somewhat cynically, but also called it as I see it. If Iraq turns out not to have much WMD, the administration will fall back on its other main argument, that Saddam is a monster who has killed and brutalized his own people and repeatedly invaded his neighbors. We already have had Halabja survivors among the Kurds protest the doubts some Westerners have expressed about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and willingness to use them. They say, basically, *we* know all about WMD. And, given the thousands of Shi`ites the Baath killed in the south, there are almost certainly mass graves that will provide a macabre justification ex post facto for the removal of that regime. Footage of the Iranian vets injured by mustard gas could also be put on television. How wars are justified before they are launched and how they are justified afterwards is frequently different. If there is a relatively quick victory, no one will inquire into the justifications too closely. If it becomes a quagmire, it won’t matter what the justification was: the public will turn against the war anyway if it goes badly…
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Posted on 12/16/2011 by Juan Cole
The United States is now officially more corrupt than the Old World.
Former French president Jacques Chirac has been found guilty of corruption when he was mayor of Paris in the early 1990s (he allegedly paid his own party workers for jobs that did not exist). He was given a two-year suspended sentence.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of that crew launched a war of aggression in contravention of the UN Charter and of the Nuremberg Principles. But they’ve never been so much as the object of a congressional hearing on their invasion and ruination of a country that had not attacked the United States and posed no imminent threat to international order. Ironically, one of their charges against the Baath Regime was that it had launched wars of aggression in 1980 and 1990!
As I have argued before, Bush/Cheney epitomized this sentiment:
To initiate a war of aggression . . . is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Ironically, Chirac was the princpled one here. He opposed the Iraq War and castigated Bush for speaking of a ‘war on terror.’ He quite reasonably said that terrorism (with which the French had a great deal of experience) is a police matter. Bush militarized our heritage of democracy rooted in 1776, whereas Chirac declined to do that to his heritage, of 1789.
The French don’t put their former presidents on a pedestal, beyond the reach of accountability, the way cult-of-personality prone Americans do.
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Posted on 11/07/2011 by Juan Cole
Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers and fund-raising have improved recently, as the GOP faithful continue their quest for an ABM (not anti-ballistic missile but “Anyone but Mitt”).
Gingrich in turn has begun trying out talking points again, which is good for pundits and stand-up comedians, but bad for everyone else.
In his most recent foray on Middle East policy, Gingrich tried to depict the Arab Spring as bad for Middle East Christians.
Weirdly, he began his attack on the 2011 protest movements in the Middle East by lamenting that the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.2 million to 500,000. He observed, “This is why the current strategy in the Middle East is such a total grotesque failure…. People say, ‘Oh, isn’t this great, we’re having an Arab spring.’ Well, I don’t know, I think we may in fact be having an anti-Christian spring. I think people should take this pretty soberly.”
As anyone with a brain will note, the Bush administration invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Gingrich helped plan out while on the Defense Advisory Board, is what caused Christians to have to leave Iraq. Christians weren’t the only ones. Millions of Iraqis at one time or another fled to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, because Gingrich’s Republican Party kicked off a civil war in that country by creating a power vacuum. In addition, anti-American guerrillas unfairly conflated Iraqi Christians with American ones, and so attacked the former. I suspect there were about 800,000 Christians in Iraq before the invasion, and that half fled, mostly to Aleppo in Syria or to Beirut.
The foreign military conquest and occupation of Iraq took place in 2003 and has nothing to do with the Arab Spring. (No one among the activists ever even mentioned Iraq, except as a negative example. “Let’s not do that, it is what the Americans did in Iraq.”)
But if one took seriously Gingrich’s implicit suggestion that US foreign policy should be about Middle Eastern Christians, what policies would that produce?
First of all, the Christians of Syria are mostly declining to actively support the protest movement against the Baathist government of Bashar al-Assad.
Yuhanna Ibrahim, archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo told the Beirut-based The Daily Star this summer:
“To be honest, everybody’s worried . . . We don’t want what happened in Iraq to happen in Syria. We don’t want the country to be divided. And we don’t want Christians to leave Syria.”
Christians make up about 10% of Syria’s 22 million population. The big Christian neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus have seen no demonstrations against the regime. This attitude comes from the Baath Party’s embrace of secular Arab nationalism. The Baath ideology was invented by Christians. In an ideal Baathist society, the important thing is that you are Arab or think of yourself as Arab, and what religion you follow is irrelevant.
A lot of Iraqi Christians had felt the same way, and the lesson they take away from the Iraq debacle is that horrible things happen when Washington decides to get rid of a Baathist government.
Many Syrian Christians are afraid that if Bashar al-Assad falls, he will be succeeded by a Muslim fundamentalist regime that will reduce them to second-class citizens or even persecute them. (To be fair, the Syrian protesters have called on the Christians to join them, so they don’t seem anti-Christian, and they say they want rights for all).
So Newt’s Middle East policy is presumably to support the Baathist government of Syria against its foes, right? Isn’t that what a Gingrich would conclude would be good for Syria’s Christians?
Nope, Gingrich is a hawk on Syria, praising Rick Santorum’s stance on this subject. But Santorum wants President Obama to wave a magic wand and make al-Assad vanish.
So I guess the Arab Spring being bad for Middle East Christians doesn’t shape Gingrich’s Syria policy? Gingrich wants to deliver the Syrian Christians into the uncertain hands of the revolutionaries? Maybe even– gasp — the Muslim Brotherhood?
Then there are significant Christian Palestinian populations. Is Newt going to support these countrymen of Jesus of Nazareth against the Israeli settlers who are stealing their land and water?
And what if it can be demonstrated that the attack on the Copts protesting in front of Cairo’s television station was orchestrated from behind the scenes by elements in the military government? Would Newt suddenly support the New Left organizations such as April 6 that are calling for the military to step down and go back to the barracks, and who have sponsored Christian-Muslim solidarity marches?
Moreover, it seems likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will do well in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and will be in a ruling coalition. Since Gingrich considers the MB little short of Satan, how would a President Newt even be able to do Egypt policy? Is he just going to blow off the most populous and important country in the Middle East?
Middle Eastern Christians deserve a decent life and human rights like everyone else. But Gingrich is being silly if he advocates putting their interests first in US Middle East policy. There aren’t that many of them The largest group is the Egyptian Copts at 8 million or so. Less than a million left in Lebanon. About a million Palestinians. Some 2 million in Syria. Less than half a million in Iraq. Maybe 200,000 in Iran. And that is just about it– their numbers everywhere else are miniscule. They aren’t even big proportions of the countries where they reside. Less than 13 million in a region of about 420 million people (the Arab world plus Turkey and Iran).
Great Powers don’t behave the way that Gingrich is suggesting. They pursue their interests. Gingrich is only even bringing up Middle Eastern Christians as a ploy to get a hearing among evangelicals, who don’t mostly much care for his two divorces (not sure if they hold his recent embrace of Catholicism against him).
And Gingrich is wallowing in such bad faith that he doesn’t even take seriously his own policy, otherwise his attitudes toward Syria and Palestine would be completely different.
The irony is that most US evangelicals have never demonstrated the slightest interest in the welfare of Middle Eastern Christians, much preferring to support the Israelis. So Gingrich’s confused and hypocritical talking point probably wouldn’t even get him anywhere with them.
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Posted in Iraq, Iraq War, Islam, Islamophobia, Israel/ Palestine, Syria | Comments
Posted on 09/18/2011 by Juan Cole
Posted on 07/14/2011 by Juan Cole
Spencer Ackerman at Wired reports on the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit launched on my behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union against the CIA, FBI, Department of Justice, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. See also the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.
In the text of the lawsuit, ACLU lawyers Michael Steinberg and Zachary Katznelson wrote,
“At the heart of this action is whether the CIA, FBI and other agencies undertook an investigation of a U.S. citizen for the simple fact that he was a critic of U.S. government policy. Such a chilling of First Amendment freedoms, if it did in fact take place, would send shock waves through the public arena, threatening to limit the open debate that makes our democracy strong. The public has an urgent need to know whether government agencies are sweeping aside the law and spying on Americans who do nothing more than speak their minds.”
I had told the ACLU, “Americans don’t need permission from their government to write and publish their political opinions. If the Bush White House pettily attempted to use the CIA to destroy my reputation by seeking dirt on my private life in order to punish me for speaking out, that would be a profound violation of my Constitutional rights.”
See also Thomas Eddlem’s thoughtful essay on the whole affair.
Eminent New York Times national security correspondent James Risen reported on the front page of the New York Times on June 15 that a retired CIA operative had alleged that he was tasked with providing information of a potentially damaging sort on my private life as the result of a request made to his boss, David Low, by the Bush White House. The operative, Glenn Carle, declined, but discovered that his immediate boss did pass over a report on me. Later on he found out that another, junior, analyst had been given the task of digging dirt on me so as to discredit me.
All I can figure is that the Bush White House was upset over my analysis of the course of the Iraq War, which it depicted as a bright and glorious enterprise. In contrast, I was simply trying as best I could from a distance to understand what exactly was happening in that country, using the Arabic press and my own sources on the ground. My depiction did not accord with theirs. Carle reports the junior analyst as being disturbed at my criticisms of the Bush administration. (It is hard to remember now, perhaps, that US conservatives actually made the argument in 2005 that it was unpatriotic to criticize a president prosecuting a foreign war! )
My initial response to the story is here.
Given Mr. Carle’s revelations, ACLU and I filed a request with all four agencies for an expedited FOIA process. That is, while the Freedom of Information Act allows citizens to request the files government agencies may hold on them, in most cases the agency concerned can take its own sweet time about responding to the request. But sometimes there is a “compelling need,” and the agency agrees to meet the request quickly, or is instructed to do so by a judge.
A compelling need is often acknowledged where the government interferes in the freedom of speech rights of journalists, and I do a fair amount of journalism. In this instance, the urgency is also increased by the possibility that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence may launch its own investigation into the allegations.
But the CIA and the FBI haven’t deigned to respond to the request for an expedited FOIA process (which is contrary to the FOIA law, specifying that they must respond within 10 days). The DOJ replied that they’d check for documents in a very limited way. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence bald-facedly denied that there was any compelling need to speed up the FOIA release of documents it might hold on me. In other words, the ODNI is not alarmed and feels no urgency about the revelation that a White House asked the CIA to violate its charter and US law in order to have it investigate me and try to discredit me merely for speaking my mind.
Since these agencies seem not to be taking this whole affair very seriously, the ACLU and I were left with no choice but to launch this lawsuit. Mr. Carle’s account affirms that there was a paper trail to this Bush administration attempt to enlist the CIA in domestic surveillance on an American in order to play dirty tricks on him. We need to see those documents in order to fight back and keep American democracy strong.
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Posted on 06/24/2011 by Juan Cole
Mark Kukis writes a guest column for Informed Comment:
Leaving Iraq: Why total U.S. military withdrawal is best
By Mark Kukis
The Obama administration’s move to accelerate a U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan inadvertently highlighted an unsettled question about American forces in Iraq. Will U.S. troops leave Iraq entirely at the end of 2011, as outlined in a standing agreement between Washington and Baghdad? Or will Iraq and the United States strike a new deal that allows a significant U.S. military presence to remain?
With the 2011 withdrawal deadline nearing, the Pentagon and key figures in Washington have for months signaled a willingness to leave a large number of troops in Iraq, perhaps as many as 15,000. Fears of instability and a potentially meddlesome Iran have left some U.S. strategists feeling that the U.S. military needs to keep a strong posture inside Iraq. Under the withdrawal agreement the Iraqi government must technically ask for a continued U.S. troop presence, however. So far, no request has come, and that appears unlikely to change before the end of the year. This is good, because the Obama administration should resist any urges it may have to linger militarily in Iraq.
In May, thousands of Iraqis marched against a lengthened American military stay at the behest of Muqtada al-Sadr, a pivotal political figure who has vowed to reform his Mahdi Army militia and attack U.S. troops en masse anew if they remain past the 2011 deadline. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is highly unlikely to defy al-Sadr and extend an invitation to U.S. forces beyond 2011. Al-Maliki owes his current government coalition to al-Sadr, who could collapse the government by withdrawing the support of his parliamentary bloc.
In 2009, as the U.S. withdrawal was beginning, I interviewed roughly 100 Iraqis in Baghdad at length for a book of mine recently released, Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003 – 2009. The book is an oral history of the war in Iraq as told entirely by Iraqis, who spoke with candor at length with me on a wide range of topics. The subject of whether U.S. forces should stay or go came up frequently, and Iraqis generally had one of two opinions based on their sectarian identity. Shi’ites tended to be eager to see U.S. forces go – and the sooner the better. The newly empowered Shi’ite majority often sees the U.S. presence as an impediment to the new order in Iraq, where wealth, power and privileges have been flowing into Shi’ite circles since the downfall of Saddam Hussein at the expense of the Sunni minority. (In other opinion polling, a super-majority of Iraqis has tended to want US troops out in fairly short order, a finding that remained the same over many years, and which would be consistent with the majority Shiite population of some 60% of the country being in favor of an early departure of the Americans).
The Sunni Arabs in our sample tended to want the U.S. troops stay in force. Many of them see the American military presence as the one institution that can stop a ruthless marginalization at hands of the rising Shi’ite majority. Sunni fears are well founded. The Iraqi government has shown little regard generally for the Sunni minority and been downright cruel at times by encouraging Shi’ite militias in sectarian violence. (Other polling has also found that Sunni Arabs are disproportionately worried about poor security once the Americans are gone, though the greater Sunni Arab opposition to a complete withdrawal has not always been replicated. Of course, some Sunni Arabs are against the US remaining in their country, and they have demonstrated in tandem with the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, though in small numbers).
Kurds too fear that they will lose out to the Shi’ite majority in the absence of a U.S. military presence, which has served as something of a brake on tensions in the dispute around Kirkuk. But Kurds are in a much stronger position militarily, economically and politically than the Sunni minority and know they can weather any serious confrontations fairly well even without American forces on hand to play referee.
That Iraqi opinion is divided over the question of a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq is the main reason American forces should go entirely. Any troops remaining in 2012 would become a lightening rod for political discord, which has a tendency to become quite violent quite quickly in Iraq. Of course some U.S. troops are likely to remain in Iraq to continue working with the Iraqi security forces, but only token number should stay. Calls for a residual U.S. force of up to 15,000 troops, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham has made, would rightly leave many Iraqis feeling like a galling reminder of the deeply resented occupation is still with them. Al-Sadr would certainly not tolerate such a sizable U.S. troop contingent, and neither would Sunni militants still active in the country. A U.S. footprint that heavy would inevitably draw attacks from Shi’ite and Sunni fighters alike.
The prospect of continuing attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq is not just a problem for the military, which has already lost nearly 4,500 men and women in Iraq. Attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq have side effects that stoke instability generally. Secular, nonsectarian Sunni militants, men who consider themselves Iraqi nationalists for resisting a foreign military presence, drift into the company of Iraq’s al-Qaeda contingent when seeking help to lash out at U.S. forces. This drift in effect bolsters al-Qaeda radicals, allowing them to pursue more easily sectarian violence against Shi’ites. Increased sectarian aggression on the part of al-Qaeda produces a violent response from Shi’ite militias such as the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government, whose security forces are quick to indulge in brutal crackdowns against Sunni communities where militants are thought to be active. So, a U.S. troop presence, big or small, inadvertently furthers sectarian violence. This has been the case since the early days of the U.S. occupation, when a Sunni nationalist resistance movement formed to fight U.S. forces but was quickly hijacked by al-Qaeda.
None of these points are intended to suggest that prospects for Iraq will brighten significantly in 2012 if U.S. forces are gone. Iraq has problems, major problems. Ask any Iraqi. The issues that make Iraq one of the most violent and troubled countries in the world will not disappear if U.S. forces go. But a continued U.S. military presence will only deepen the worst of Iraq’s problems. And after nearly ten years in country, the U.S. military’s ability to help Iraq solve its many problems is surely spent.
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Mark Kukis is a journalist and writer now living in Nairobi, Kenya. He has written for Time, The New Republic and Salon, and was the White House correspondent for United Press International, 1999-2001. His most recent book is Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009
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