Iraq: The Necessary Withdrawal

Iraq: The Necessary Withdrawal

The removal of US troops must be prompt, complete and coupled with smart diplomacy.


The passage by the Iraqi Parliament in late November of the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) adds credibility and urgency to President-elect Obama’s pledge to get US troops out of Iraq by the midpoint of his first term. Bush’s costly and illegal war has been a drain on the economy to the tune of a trillion dollars if hidden costs are included, a sum likely to triple in coming decades as the public pays for the care of injured veterans. The war has left tens of thousands of military personnel wounded, suffering from brain trauma or dead. The toll on Iraqis has been monumental. It cannot end too soon.

The general Iraqi hostility to the presence of foreign troops was apparent in the process whereby the SOFA was enacted. The fierce debates that it provoked signaled that there are only two major factions in Iraqi politics: those who want the United States out within a couple of years and those who want the United States out now.

The Washington debate on withdrawal, in contrast, has been peculiarly removed from reality since the early days of the presidential campaign. Such opponents of withdrawal as John McCain called it an act of “surrender,” a waving of a white flag. (To whom would we have been surrendering?) The US military would have to stay in Iraq forever, they implied, because it would be too embarrassing to leave. They demanded “victory” but carefully avoided defining what they meant by the word. They warned that parts of Iraq, or even the entire country, would become an Al Qaeda base were the United States to depart. Even as they spoke, Shiite militias were systematically cleansing about half the Sunni Arab population from the capital and a Shiite prime minister was gathering military power into his hands. The Republican visions of Osama bin Laden occupying Saddam’s palaces were paranoid fantasies.

The Bush administration initially pressed on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a SOFA text that all but formally reduced Iraq to a colony. The United States would control Iraq’s air and water, would arrest and detain Iraqis at will and without the requirement of due process, would decide unilaterally what was a terrorist threat within the country and how to deal with it, and would initiate military action unilaterally. Its troops and private security contractors would enjoy complete immunity from Iraqi law. There was no timetable for US withdrawal. A year or two earlier, an Iraqi government might have had to just go along with it.

Maliki had long argued that he would not need US troops past 2009. Only in March and April 2008 did he prove, however, that he had won control of the increasingly well-trained and professional Iraqi military in ways that might allow him greater independence from the United States. Despite American advice to the contrary, he moved militarily against his main internal rival, the Shiite Mahdi Army, in Basra, Amara and Sadr City last spring. With that success under his belt, the prime minister had gained the confidence to push back against the Bush/Cheney imperium.

Despite his new role as commander in chief of a more confident Iraqi military, Maliki needs the support of other Shiite notables and parties to remain in power. His Islamic Dawa Party is relatively small. He depends on the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, who strongly opposed any SOFA that infringed on Iraq’s sovereignty. Maliki is also increasingly closely allied with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the leading Shiite party in the Iraqi Parliament, which has close links to Iran. Both ISCI and its patrons in Tehran wanted to see a timetable established for US troop withdrawals from Iraq. Not only is Iran threatened by the massive US troop presence on its borders but the occupation of Muslim countries by a non-Muslim military is anathema to the Islamic Republic. One of the grievances Ayatollah Khomeini had voiced as he made the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the 1970s was that US troops based in Iran enjoyed immunity from Iranian law.

In the end, by dint of hard bargaining and brinkmanship, Maliki secured a very different sort of agreement from the lame-duck Bush. As of January 1, the US military will have to get permission from Iraqi authorities for military operations. Off-duty, off-base US troops who commit crimes might theoretically be liable to prosecution before an Iraqi judge. Civilian security contractors will be under Iraqi law. US combat troops will withdraw from all Iraqi cities to bases by the end of June, ending their unilateral neighborhood patrols. By 2011 they will be out of the country altogether, and the Iraqi government can advance the deadline by a simple request. Some US commanders may engage in foot-dragging in meeting these deadlines, setting the stage for conflicts between Washington and Baghdad. But with Obama and Maliki committed to the withdrawal of US combat troops, it is clear that Bush’s hopes for long-term bases have been dashed.

Perhaps never before in history has an invader that won a crushing military victory, and that continued to occupy its prize, voluntarily accepted such humiliating terms from the vanquished. It is difficult to discern how Bush’s agreement differs from the “surrender” Democrats were accused of advocating when they put forward a similar timetable for complete withdrawal.

Even with all these concessions, the agreement only got 54 percent of Parliament’s 275 potential votes, barely an absolute majority, precisely because so many Iraqi political forces found the idea of formally authorizing the further presence of US soldiers on Iraqi soil so distasteful. Powerful Shiite fundamentalist parties such as the Sadr movement and the Fadhila (Virtue) Party rejected it altogether, and the latter boycotted the vote. The Sunni Arab representatives held their noses while mostly voting for it but required that a national referendum be held on the pact. (It is scheduled for July and is not assured of passage.) In the aftermath of negotiations, the Shiite clerical establishment expressed concerns that the agreement infringed too much on Iraq’s sovereignty.

Even though the SOFA allows for an extension of the 2011 deadline by mutual consent, the Obama administration would be unwise to keep US troops in Iraq beyond it. As the drawdown proceeds, the smaller numbers left behind will become increasingly vulnerable to attack, and a plurality of Iraqis clearly still means them harm. Sistani is increasingly impatient with the foreign occupation, and an explicit fatwa, or legal ruling, from him forbidding the continued presence of US soldiers could set 15 million Iraqi Shiites virulently against those remaining.

There are powerful reasons for which the United States should mount an orderly withdrawal from Iraq. The first and most important is that the Iraqis want it. In an opinion poll of 2,228 randomly selected Iraqis done last February for the BBC and other clients by D3 Systems and KA Research, 72 percent somewhat or strongly opposed the continued presence of foreign troops in the country, and nearly 40 percent wanted US troops out immediately. The proportion of the public that believed attacks on coalition forces are acceptable stood at 42 percent last winter.

The US occupation of Iraq has profoundly harmed its image in the Muslim world, and the only hope of mending relations with Arab peoples in particular is for a complete US withdrawal. Public opinion matters because an angry populace becomes a recruitment pool for violent groups. Iraq-inspired terrorism has hit Madrid, London, Amman, Jeddah and Glasgow, among other cities. Bush’s crusade, far from making the NATO countries and their allies safer, has turned them into serial targets of angry young men who view the West as genocidal toward Sunni Muslims.

The potential benefits of a withdrawal outweigh the risks. Maliki had earlier been unwilling to come to terms with the Sunni Arabs, knowing that he could always call down US bombs on them if they defied him. With the prospect of a less robust US role looming, the prime minister has suddenly discovered the art of compromise. He acquiesced in the popular referendum on the SOFA demanded by Sunni parties because he needed the vote for it to express a cross-sectarian national consensus.

Likewise, the Sunni Arab “Awakening Councils,” local militias fostered by the American military, had often expressed a profound hostility toward the Maliki government, pledging to take it on after they had finished off “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” the radical fundamentalists who seldom actually called themselves that and against whom the Awakening Councils had turned. This fall, as part of the preparations for a reduced US role, the Maliki government took over the responsibility of paying the salaries of around 50,000 Awakening Council fighters in Baghdad, tying their fate to that of the prime minister. Maliki wants to decommission most of them, a move they are resisting. The relationship is not solely negative, however. Maliki at one point attempted to bring some of their representatives into his cabinet, and they are likely to have a place in provincial administration after the upcoming provincial elections.

Iraq has been embroiled in at least four low-intensity civil conflicts in recent years. In the south, the Shiite militias and the new Iraqi security forces have been jockeying for power. Following Maliki’s Basra and Amara campaigns, the Iraqi military has emerged on top and has forced the militias to stand down, at least for now. In the center of the country, the Sunni Arab population fought the US military presence (with the Awakening Councils’ defeat of the radical fundamentalists in Anbar province and Baghdad, that war has wound down). The Sunni Arab resistance groups have also been fighting the Shiite-dominated Iraqi state. They have, however, lost Baghdad, and those in Anbar seem resigned to the new situation. Resistance continues in the ethnically mixed Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces. Finally, behind the scenes there has been Arab-on-Kurd violence in the north, as the two ethnic communities struggle for control of cities like Khanaqin and Kirkuk.

It should be noted that Baghdad was ethnically cleansed of nearly a million Sunni Arabs in 2006-07 under the nose of US troops while the troop escalation, or “surge,” was being implemented. Shiite militiamen invaded neighborhoods at night or sent threatening letters to Sunni heads of households, or killed one member of a clan as a warning to the others. American soldiers were helpless to intervene. This sort of micro-level political and demographic struggle is likely to continue for some time in Iraq, but it will unfold whether US troops are there or not.

The two big remaining security problems–continued Sunni Arab resistance to the new order in Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces, and the Kurdish-Arab wrangling over Kirkuk and other disputed territories–can only be resolved politically, not by military force. The struggles in Iraq, like those in Lebanon since 1975, are kaleidoscopic, characterized by shifting alliances and serial feuds. The main supporters of the US presence in northern Iraq are the Kurds. If US troops come into ever greater conflict with Maliki, could they really afford to fight their best ally, the Kurdish paramilitary peshmerga? Yet how could they decline to support the elected prime minister? There is also the danger of Turkey, Washington’s NATO ally, being drawn into a Kurdish-Arab struggle on Baghdad’s side. US troops would be in an impossible situation if they were expected to intervene militarily in such a complex struggle.

Obama could help make sure that the troop withdrawal goes smoothly by engaging in the sort of hands-on, intelligent and far-seeing diplomacy the previous administration was either uninterested in or incapable of. He should seek a concrete plan for the disposition of Kirkuk before the United States loses all leverage in Iraq. It might be possible, for instance, to partition the province so that the Kurdish population can join the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Turkmen and Arabs can have their own province and remain in Iraq proper. The city of Kirkuk could also be partitioned or could have a dual role. The city of Chandigargh in India is the capital of both Punjab and Haryana provinces, after all. The oil wealth of Kirkuk is already divided between the federal government and the KRG by a formula that gives 17 percent to Kurdistan. A territorial compromise can also be reached, but high-level and tough diplomacy will be required.

The other historic compromise that still needs to be made is between the Shiite-dominated government and the Sunni Arabs. Al Qaeda in Iraq are a rapidly diminishing factor; not only would the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds not put up with them but the Iraqi Sunni Arabs have largely rejected them. The idea that Al Qaeda in Iraq could hope to hold significant territory or use it as a base for external attacks is a fantasy. Nor would Shiite Iran, secular Turkey or monarchical Jordan stand for it. The Iraqi Sunnis are largely Iraqi or Arab nationalists who mainly want to avoid being marginalized and impoverished in the new Iraq. President Obama, in conjunction with Iraq’s neighbors, should continue to work with the Iraqi government to find practical means of national reconciliation.

The United States invaded a country that had not attacked it, dissolved its army and much of its government, threw it into chaos, and set in train events that probably have led to the deaths of as many as a million Iraqis and have left more than 4 million displaced. It is a burned-out hulk of a country, full of widows and orphans, of the unemployed and the marginalized, still infested with militias and suffering daily bombings and assassinations. The United States kicked off an ethno-religious free-for-all that could still tear the country apart.

Obama bears no responsibility for these policies, but as president he inherits the responsibility to do everything he can to allow Iraq to go forward without further calamities and to repair, through reparations or aid, as much of the damage as possible. The key question is whether the Obama administration will have the wisdom and concentration to broker overarching deals in Iraq proactively as it prepares to depart that country, rather than being purely reactive.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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