Iraq Pact Challenges Antiwar Movement

Iraq Pact Challenges Antiwar Movement

The US-Iraq Security Pact signals the war is ending–though not soon enough–and challenges peace activists to broaden their agenda against new quagmires.


What does the US-Iraq Security Pact mean for the antiwar movement? It certainly may cement an American perception that the war is finally over, stranding the peace movement as public opinion turns its attention to the economy and the Obama administration.

The agreement forces the Bush administration and Pentagon to back down from long-held positions, especially over deadlines. The barracking of American troops in remote areas by June 2009 will be a retreat from offensive operations. More important, the language of the agreement in Arabic stipulates that all American forces, not merely combat units, will be withdrawn by 2001.

If these terms are maintained, President-elect Obama will be acquiescing in a doubling of his sixteen-month deadline for withdrawal of combat troops, but also for the first time accepting a date for removal of the so-called residual American forces–since “all” means all counter-terrorism units, advisers, trainers and back-up forces that could total 50,000 or more.

Because shrugging off treaty obligations is a custom of state, only informed publics and alert parliamentarians in Washington and Baghdad can ensure that these agreements are implemented.

This is not “out now,” but that was never possible politically or militarily. It’s not literally “ending the war in 2009” as Obama promised. But this pact is officially known as “the withdrawal agreement” to all proud Iraqis. Read carefully, it is an agreed-upon 2009 timetable for ending the war, the occupation, the troop presence and closing the military bases in three years.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, it is too slow. Only a few weeks ago Prime Minister al-Maliki was praising Obama’s sixteen-month timetable. Obviously something or someone got to him. American Embassy officials, according to press accounts, were buttonholing Iraqi parliamentarians in the hallways in the days before the final vote. There are no registered lobbyists or even lobbying laws in Baghdad.

Second, one can predict with certainty that there will be pressures to extend the occupation despite the pact, using “instability” as justification. Fully and truly ending the occupation is simply not an option in the mentality of the national security bureaucracy.

The reason for this goes beyond a chronic mendacity and trail of broken treaties. The balance of forces in Baghdad rests entirely on the American occupation, and always has. Described by Stephen Biddle, an adviser to General David Petraeus, in 2006 articles in Foreign Affairs, the US occupation purports to protect the Iraqi Shi’a regime of former exiles from a coup d’état, while also presenting itself to the insurgent Sunnis as the only protection against the vengeful repression of the majority Shi’a.

The Sunnis’ Fate

It is unpredictable how a gradual American withdrawal might alter this balance of power. It could simply leave a US-backed sectarian Shi’a police state in Baghdad, holding 40-50,000 Sunnis in detention. “The Sunnis are roadkill,” according to an American official quoted last week in the Los Angeles Times. That is why the non-binding side agreement pledging amnesty for Sunni political detainees is of great importance–if it is enforceable. The continued granting of funds and relative autonomy to the 99,000 former Sunni insurgents, who the Americans currently pay not to shoot our troops, is equally important–as are restored employment opportunities for former Baathists.

The provincial elections now set for January could consolidate Sunni power bases in at least three provinces where they have been disenfranchised since 2005. The referendum on the pact scheduled in six months provides greater leverage for two opposite poles of discontent with the occupation–the minority Sunnis and the much larger number of Shi’a followers of Moktada al-Sadr, whose demand is to accelerate the withdrawal.

Here at home, the agreement will force the antiwar movement into careful consideration of a broader agenda. Unless the pact is violated, it is difficult to imagine hundreds of thousands demonstrating to bring the troops home in 2010 instead of 2011. There will be continued attention to implementing the pact and pressuring for human rights standards in Baghdad, but the steady return of thousands of American soldiers will send a powerful message to most Americans that the Iraq War is ending, perhaps not soon enough, but ending nonetheless.

But it is possible to imagine broad and intense public support for a movement questioning Obama’s multiple wars–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, not to mention Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict–as unwinnable quagmires that alienate countless Muslims and cost over $200 billion annually that taxpayers cannot afford amidst a collapsing economy. In this different framing, the antiwar movement could include the Iraq withdrawal and diplomatic solutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan within a new progressive agenda demanding a turn away from policing a world of quagmires to addressing our spiralling economic, trade, healthcare and energy crises.

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