"The US isn’t withdrawing from Iraq at all—it’s rebranding the occupation…. What is abundantly clear is that the US…has no intention of letting go of Iraq any time soon." So declared Seumas Milne of the Guardian on August 4.
Milne is not alone among writers on the left arguing that even though most Americans think it’s all over, Uncle Sam still rules the roost in Iraq. They point to 50,000 US troops in ninety-four military bases, "advising" and training the Iraqi army, "providing security" and carrying out "counterterrorism" missions. Outside US government forces there is what Jeremy Scahill calls the "coming surge" of contractors in Iraq, swelling up from the present 100,000. "The advantage of an outsourced occupation," Milne writes, "is clearly that someone other than US soldiers can do the dying to maintain control of Iraq."

"Can Iraq now be regarded as a tolerably secure outpost of the American system in the Middle East?" Tariq Ali asked in New Left Review earlier this year. He answered himself judiciously: "[Iraqis] have reason to exult, and reason to doubt." But the thrust of his analysis depicts Iraq as still the pawn of the US empire, with a "predominantly Shia army—some 250,000 strong…trained and armed to the teeth to deal with any resurgence of the resistance."

The bottom line, as drawn by Milne and Ali, is oil. Milne gestures to the "dozen 20-year contracts to run Iraq’s biggest oil fields that were handed out last year to foreign companies."

Is it really true that, though the US troop presence has dropped by almost 100,000 in eighteen months, Iraq is as much under Uncle Sam’s imperial jackboot as it was in, say, 2004, even though US troops no longer patrol the streets? If Iraq’s political affairs are under US control, how come the US Embassy—deployed in its Vatican City–size compound, mostly as vacant as a foreclosed subdivision in Riverside, California—cannot knock Iraqi heads together and bid them form a government? Those 50,000 troops broiling in their costly bases are scarcely a decisive factor in Iraq’s internal affairs. Neither are the private contractors, whose military role should not be oversold, unless the Shiites are supposed to quail before ill-paid Peruvians, Ugandan cops and the like.

Is a Shiite-dominated government really to America’s taste and nothing more than its pawn? It was Sistani, denounced by Ali as America’s creature, who called Bush on his pledge of free elections in 2005, thus downsizing the excessive representation of the Sunnis, who chose to boycott the elections anyway. And if all this was a devious ploy to break "the Iraqi resistance," by which Ali means the Sunnis, why does the United States constantly invoke the menace of Shiite Iran and decry its influence in Iraq?

If the Sunni "resistance," honored without qualification by Ali, ever had a strategy beyond a sectarian agenda, it wasn’t advanced by blowing up Shiite pilgrims and setting off bombs in marketplaces. Muqtada al-Sadr, lamented by Ali as sidelined by the United States and Sistani, has been described as the "kingmaker" since his success in the parliamentary election this past March.

If this really was a "war for oil," it scarcely went well for the United States. Run your eye down the list of contracts the Iraqi government awarded in June and December 2009. Prominent is Russia’s Lukoil, which, in partnership with Norway’s Statoil, won the rights to West Qurna Phase Two, a 12.9 billion–barrel supergiant oilfield. Other successful bidders for fixed-term contracts included Russia’s Gazprom and Malaysia’s Petronas. Only two US-based oil companies came away with contracts: ExxonMobil partnered with Royal Dutch Shell on a contract for West Qurna Phase One (8.7 billion barrels in reserves); and Occidental shares a contract in the Zubair field (4 billion barrels), in company with Italy’s ENI and South Korea’s Kogas. The huge Rumaila field (17 billion barrels) yielded a contract for BP and the China National Petroleum Company, and Royal Dutch Shell split the 12.6 billion–barrel Majnoon field with Petronas, 60-40.

Throughout the two auctions there were frequent bleats from the oil companies at the harsh terms imposed by the auctioneers representing Iraq, as this vignette from Reuters about the bidding on the northern Najmah field suggests: "Sonangol also won the nearby 900-million-barrel Najmah oilfield in Nineveh…. Again, the Angolan firm had to cut its price and accept a fee of $6 per barrel, less than the $8.50 it had sought. ‘We are expecting a little bit higher. Can you go a little bit higher?’ Sonangol’s exploration manager Paulino Jeronimo asked Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to spontaneous applause from other oil executives. Shahristani said, ‘No.’"

So either the all-powerful US government was unable to fix the auctions to its liking or the all-powerful US-based oil companies mostly decided the profit margins weren’t sufficiently tempting. Either way, the "war for oil" isn’t in very good shape.

Ali and Milne are being credulous in taking at face value declarations by US officials that the United States is not wholly withdrawing and will stay in business in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Those officials don’t want to see their influence go to zilch, so they have to maintain that their power in Iraq is only a little affected by the steady reduction of troops.

The left—or a substantial slice of it—snatches defeat from the jaws of a decisive victory over US plans for Iraq by proclaiming that America has established what Milne calls "a new form of outsourced semi-colonial regime to maintain its grip on the country and region." Yes, Iraq is in ruins—always the default consequence of American imperial endeavors. The left should hammer home the message that the US onslaught on Iraq, in terms of its proclaimed objectives, was a strategic and military disaster. That’s the lesson to bring home.