Consensus Growing in Iraq for a Withdrawal Timetable
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leading figure in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA the largely Shiite party that is likely to form the next Iraqi government), gave a press conference on Wednesday that I saw on LBC satellite television. Al-Hakim said that Iraqis did not want to continue to depend on foreign troops for their security, but would have to become self-sufficient in that regard. Al-Hakim headed for nearly two decades the Badr Corps, the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). His hopes of using it as the corps of a new Iraqi security force have been thwarted by the Americans, who insisted it turn in its heavy weapons and who remain suspicious of it as a stalking horse for Iran. (The Badr Corps was largely trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.) The Badr Corps has now morphed into a political party, the Badr Organization, which is separate from SCIRI and which has seats in the UIA slate. Al-Hakim’s comments on Wednesday suggest that he may try to use Badr more aggressively if the UIA wins, against the Sunni Arab insurgency.
The UIA has it in its party platform that if it wins it will demand that the US establish a timetable for withdrawal of its troops from Iraq. This idea is becoming increasingly popular in Iraq.
The idea has now been endorsed behind the scenes by officials in the United Kingdom. A UK government source told the Daily Telegraph, ‘”The main Iraqi parties are already talking about when coalition forces should be drawn down . . . America knows it will have to deal with the issue soon.” ‘ British eagerness in this regard is driven in part by the recognition by the Blair wing of the Labour Party that the presence of British troops in Iraq is extremely unpopular with the British public. Blair probably won’t be dumped by his party the way Thatcher was by hers, but Iraq is just an enormous drag on his government and his popularity. The UK is currently having its own Abu Ghraib moment, as shocking photographs circulated during the trial of three British troops for abusing Iraqi detainees.
Arab satellite television news reported early Thursday morning that Iyad Allawi is also putting forward a plan to regain for Iraq sovereign authority over military decisions in Iraq, and asking for a withdrawal timetable. Such a timetable is also in the platform of Allawi’s party.
The FT revealed one reason for which Allawi is making such frantic policy statements two weeks before the elections. Mohammad Tawfiq, an important Kurdish political figure, told the Financial Times that the interim government of Iyad Allawi had never developed a practical strategy for implementing security. He also predicted that Allawi would not get enough support in the forthcomming elections to form the new government, based on his talks with Iraqis from all over the country. He thought the United Iraqi Alliance would do very well, but that it would not nominate a cleric for prime minister. And he is confident that the Shiites will yield to Kurdish desires for a consolidated, ethnically-based province of Kurdistan, to be formed out of 6 of the present 18 provinces.
What are the pros and cons of setting a timetable for withdrawal of coalition troops? The pro is that unless a firm timetable is set, the coalition commanders will have no precise goal toward which to work in wrapping up their tasks in Iraq. They could easily end up being there as long as Israel was in Lebanon (and the Syrians, who came in to Lebanon in 1976 to restore order at the instance of the US and Israel, are still there!) Moreover, some of the hostility toward Coalition troops on the part of Iraqis might subside if there was a known timetable for their withdrawal.
One con is that a precipitous withdrawal of coalition troops could lead to the total breakdown of security and give the guerrilla insurgents the run of Iraq. This sort of factor has stood in the way of previous US bids to begin drawing down the number of troops.
Another con is that in colonial situations setting a firm deadline for withdrawal beforehand can be disastrous. The imperial power becomes a lame duck. Why should anyone care if they are arrested if they know the arresting officers will be gone in 6 months? Plus, such deadlines can encourage massive communal violence as ethnic groups jockey to take over as the imperial power departs. The British in India announced a deadline for August of 1947, and helped provoke the Partition of the country into Indian and Pakistan, an event that led to population displacements and rioting that cost between half a million and a million lives. Likewise, the May, 1948, deadline the British set for withdrawal from Palestine led to the outbreak of the 1948 War and the expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians from their own country.
One solution to this latter problem might be to set a timetable for withdrawal of Coalition land forces, but for the US and its allies to continue to offer the new Iraqi government’s army close air support in any battles with the neo-Baathists and jihadis that might try to take advantage of the withdrawal to make a coup and institute a bloodbath.