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It's All Spelled Out in Unpublicized Agreement

Total Defeat for U.S. in Iraq

By PATRICK COCKBURN

December 11, 2008 "Counterpunch" -- - On November 27 the Iraqi parliament voted by a large majority in favor of  a security agreement with the US under which the 150,000 American  troops in Iraq will withdraw from cities, towns and villages by  June 30,  2009 and from all of Iraq by  December 31, 2011. The Iraqi government will take over military responsibility for the Green Zone in Baghdad, the heart  of American power in Iraq, in a few weeks time. Private security companies  will lose their legal immunity. US military operations and the arrest of Iraqis  will only be carried out with Iraqi consent. There will be no US military  bases left behind when the last US troops leave in three years time and  the US military is banned in the interim from carrying out attacks on other  countries from Iraq.     

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed after eight months of  rancorous negotiations, is categorical and unconditional. America’s bid to act as the world’s only super-power and to establish quasi-colonial control  of Iraq, an attempt which began with the invasion of 2003, has ended in  failure. There will be a national referendum on the new agreement next July, but the accord is to be implemented immediately so the poll will be  largely irrelevant. Even Iran, which had furiously denounced the first drafts  of the SOFA saying that they would establish a permanent US presence in  Iraq, now says blithely that it will officially back the new security pact after  the referendum. This is a sure sign that Iran, as America’s main rival in the  Middle East,  sees the pact as marking the final end of the US occupation  and as a launching pad for military assaults on neighbours such as Iran.      

Astonishingly, this momentous agreement has been greeted with little  surprise or interest outside Iraq. On the same day that it was finally  passed by the Iraqi parliament international attention was wholly focused  on the murderous terrorist attack in Mumbai. For some months polls in the US showed that the economic crisis had replaced the Iraqi war as the main  issue facing America in the eyes of voters. So many spurious milestones in Iraq have been declared by President Bush over the years that when a  real turning point occurs people are naturally sceptical about its  significance. The White House was so keen to limit understanding of what  it had agreed in Iraq that it did not even to publish a copy of the SOFA in  English. Some senior officials in the Pentagon are privately criticizing President  Bush for conceding so much to the Iraqis, but the American media are fixated on the incoming Obama administration and no longer pays much  attention to the doings of the expiring Bush administration.     

 The last minute delays to the accord were not really about the terms  agreed with the Americans. It was rather that the leaders of the Sunni  Arab minority, seeing the Shia-Kurdish government of prime minister Nouri  al-Maliki about to fill the vacuum created by the US departure, wanted to  barter their support for the accord in return for as many last minute  concessions as they could extract. Some three quarters of the 17,000  prisoners held by the Americans are Sunni and they wanted them released  or at least not mistreated  by the Iraqi security forces. They asked for an  end to de-Baathication which is directed primarily at the Sunni community.  Only the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held out against the accord to the  end, declaring it a betrayal of independent Iraq. The ultra-patriotic  opposition of the Sadrists to the accord has been important because it has  made it difficult for the other Shia parties to agree to anything less than a  complete American withdrawal. If they did so they risked being portrayed  as US puppets in the upcoming provincial elections at the end of January  2009 or the parliamentary elections later in the year.     

The SOFA finally agreed is almost the opposite of the one which US  started to negotiate in March. This is why Iran, with its strong links to the Shia parties inside Iraq, ended its previous rejection of it. The first US draft  was largely an attempt to continue the occupation without much change  from the UN mandate which expired at the end of the year. Washington  overplayed its hand. The Iraqi government was growing stronger as the Sunni Arabs ended their uprising against the occupation. The Iranians  helped restrain the Mehdi Army, Muqtada’s powerful militia, so the  government regained control of Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city, and Sadr  City, almost half Baghdad, from the Shia militias. The prime minister Nouri  al-Maliki became more confident, realizing his military enemies were  dispersing and, in any case, the Americans had no real alternative but to  support him. The US has always been politically weak in Iraq since the fall  of Saddam Hussein because it has few real friends in the country aside  from the Kurds. The leaders of the Iraqi Shia, 60 per cent of the total  population, might ally themselves to Washington to gain power, but they  never intended to share power with the US in the long term.     

The occupation has always been unpopular in Iraq. Foreign observers  and some Iraqis are often misled by the hatred with which different Iraqi  communities regard each other into underestimating the strength of Iraqi  nationalism. Once Maliki came to believe that he could survive without US  military support then he was able to spurn US proposals until an  unconditional withdrawal was conceded. He could also see that Barack  Obama, whose withdrawal timetable was not so different from his own,  was going to be the next American president. Come the provincial and  parliamentary elections of 2009, Maliki can present himself as the man who  ended the occupation. Critics of the prime minister, notably the Kurds,  think that success has gone to his head, but there is no doubt that the  new security agreement has strengthened him politically.    

It may be that, living in the heart of the Green Zone, that Maliki has an  exaggerated idea of what his government has achieved. In the Zone there is access to clean water and electricity while in the rest of Baghdad people  have been getting only three or four hours electricity a day. Security in  Iraq is certainly better than it was during the sectarian civil war between  Sunni and Shia in 2006-7 but the improvement is wholly comparative. The  monthly death toll has dropped from 3,000 a month at its worst to 360  Iraqi civilians and security personnel killed this November, though these  figures may understate the casualty toll as not all the bodies are found.  Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places in the world.  On  December 1, the  day I started writing this article, two suicide bombers killed 33 people and  wounded dozens more in Baghdad and Mosul. Iraqis in the street are  cynical about the government’s claim to have restored order. “We are  used to the government always saying that things have become good and  the security situation improved,” says Salman Mohammed Jumah, a  primary school teacher in Baghdad. “It is true security is a little better but  the government leaders live behind concrete barriers and do not know  what is happening on the ground. They only go out in their armoured  convoys. We no longer have sectarian killings by ID cards [revealing that a  person is Sunni or Shia by their name] but Sunni are still afraid to go to  Shia areas and Shia to Sunni.”        

Security has improved with police and military checkpoints everywhere  but sectarian killers have also upgraded their tactics. There are less  suicide bombings but there are many more small ‘sticky bombs’ placed  underneath vehicles. Everybody checks underneath their car before they get into it. I try to keep away from notorious choke points in Baghdad,  such as Tahrir Square or the entrances to the Green Zone, where a  bomber for can wait for a target to get stuck in traffic before making an  attack. The checkpoints and the walls, the measures taken to reduce the  violence, bring Baghdad close to paralysis even when there are no bombs.  It can take two or three hours to travel a few miles. The bridges over the  Tigris are often blocked and this has got worse recently because soldiers  and police have a new toy in the shape of a box which looks like a  transistor radio with a short aerial sticking out horizontally. When pointed at the car this device is  supposed to detect vapor from explosives and  may well do so, but since it also responds to vapor from alcohol or  perfume it is worse than useless as a security aid.     

Iraqi state television and government backed newspapers make  ceaseless claims that life in Iraq is improving by the day. To be convincing  this should mean not just improving security but providing more electricity,  clean water and jobs. “The economic situation is still very bad,” says  Salman Mohammed Jumah, the teacher. “Unemployment affects everybody  and you can’t get a job unless you pay a bribe. There is no electricity and  nowadays we have cholera again so people have to buy expensive bottled  water and only use the water that comes out of the tap for washing.” Not  everybody has the same grim vision but life in Iraq is still extraordinarily  hard. The best barometer for how far Iraq is ‘better’ is the willingness of  the 4.7 million refugees, one in five Iraqis who have fled their homes and  are now living inside or outside Iraq, to go home. By October only 150,000  had returned and some do so only to look at the situation and then go  back to Damascus or Amman. One middle aged Sunni businessman who  came back from Syria for two or three weeks, said: “I don’t like to be here.  In Syria I can go out in the evening to meet friends in a coffe bar. It is  safe. Here I am forced to stay in my home after 7pm.”     

The degree of optimism or pessimism felt by Iraqis depends very much  on whether they have a job, whether or not that job is with the  government, which community they belong to, their social class and the  area they live in. All these factors are interlinked. Most jobs are with the  state that reputedly employs some two million people. The private sector  is very feeble. Despite talk of reconstruction there are almost no cranes  visible on the Baghdad skyline. Since the Shia and Kurds control of the  government, it is difficult for a Sunni to get a job and probably impossible  unless he has a letter recommending him from a political party in the  government. Optimism is greater among the Shia. “There is progress in  our life, says Jafar Sadiq, a Shia businessman married to a Sunni in the  Shia-dominated Iskan area of Baghdad. “People are cooperating with the  security forces. I am glad the army is fighting the Mehdi Army though they  still are not finished. Four Sunni have reopened their shops in my area. It  is safe for my wife’s Sunni relatives to come here. The only things we need  badly are electricity, clean water and municipal services.” But his wife Jana  admitted privately that she had warned her Sunni relatives from coming to  Iskan “because the security situation is unstable.” She teaches at  Mustansariyah University in central Baghdad which a year ago was  controlled by the Mehdi Army and Sunni students had fled. “Now the Sunni  students are coming back,” she says, “though they are still afraid.”    

They have reason to fear. Baghdad is divided into Shia and Sunni  enclaves defended by high concrete blast walls often with a single  entrance and exit. The sectarian slaughter is much less than it was but it  is still dangerous for returning refugees to try to reclaim their old house in an  area in which they are a minority. In one case in a Sunni district in west  Baghdad, as I reported here some weeks ago,  a Shia husband and wife with their two daughters went back to  their house to find it gutted, with furniture gone and electric sockets and  water pipes torn out. They decided to sleep on the roof. A Sunni gang  reached them from a neighboring building, cut off the husband’s head  and threw it into the street. They said to his wife and daughters: “The  same will happen to any other Shia who comes back.” But even without  these recent atrocities Baghdad would still be divided because the memory  of the mass killings of 2006-7 is too fresh and there is still an underlying  fear that it could happen again.   

 Iraqis have a low opinion of their elected representatives, frequently  denouncing them as an incompetent kleptocracy. The government  administration is dysfunctional. “Despite the fact,” said independent  member of parliament Qassim Daoud, “that the Labor and Social Affairs is  meant to help the millions of poor Iraqis I discovered that they had spent  only 10 per cent of their budget.” Not all of this is the government’s fault.  Iraqi society, administration and economy have been shattered by 28  years of war and sanctions. Few other countries have been put under  such intense and prolonged pressure. First there was the eight year Iran- Iraq war starting in 1980, then the disastrous Gulf war of `1991, thirteen  years of sanctions and then the five-and-a-half years of conflict since the  US invasion. Ten years ago UN officials were already saying they could not  repair the faltering power stations because they were so old that spare  parts were no longer made for them.      

Iraq is full of signs of the gap between the rulers and the ruled. The  few planes using Baghdad international airport are full foreign contractors  and Iraqi government officials. Talking to people on the streets in Baghdad  in October many of them brought up fear of cholera which had just started  to spread from Hilla province south of Baghdad. Forty per cent of people in  the capital do not have access to clean drinking water. The origin of the  epidemic was the purchase of out of date chemicals for water purification  from Iran by corrupt officials. Everybody talked about the cholera except in  the Green Zone where people had scarcely heard of the epidemic..    

The Iraqi government will become stronger as the Americans depart. It  will also be forced to take full responsibility for the failings of the Iraqi  state. This will be happening at a bad moment since the price of oil,  the state’s only source of revenue, has fallen to $50 a barrel when the budget  assumed it would be $80. Many state salaries, such as those of teachers,  were doubled on the strength of this, something the government may now  regret. Communal differences are still largely unresolved. Friction between  Sunni and Shia, bad though it is, is less than two years ago,  though  hostility between Arabs and Kurds is deepening. The departure of the US  military frightens many Sunni on the grounds that they will be at the mercy  of the majority Shia. But it is also an incentive for the three main  communities in Iraq to agree about what their future relations should be  when there are no Americans to stand between them. As for the US, its  moment in Iraq is coming to an end as its troops depart, leaving a ruined  country behind them.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of 'The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq', a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book 'Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq' is published by Scribner.         

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