As a persistent insurgency against the US occupation continued in the Sunni heartland of Iraq this summer, the world’s attention was focused on the increasingly acrimonious negotiations over the text of a new Constitution. The failure of Shiite and Kurdish factions to find agreement with Sunni negotiators led to predictions of heightened support for the insurgency among the Sunni population and a determined campaign on their part to reject the Constitution in the October referendum. It would be reasonable to conclude from mainstream press accounts that opposition to the occupation is strong only in Sunni areas.
In fact, with the notable exception of the Kurdish population, support for the American military among Iraqis is virtually nonexistent two and a half years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government. Before January’s elections, polls taken by Sadoun Dulaimi (now the country’s defense minister) indicated that 85 percent of Iraqis wanted a US withdrawal “as soon as possible.” On a recent trip to the country, this journalist found that dissatisfaction with the occupation has, if anything, grown.
There are a litany of reasons for this, from the postinvasion looting that occurred as US soldiers sat idle, to the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison, to the flattening of Falluja and the ongoing operations along the Euphrates River in the western part of Iraq, which inflict widespread destruction and casualties among the local population while failing to remove resistance fighters. Added to this is the frustrating lack of improvement in basic services like water and electricity and the fact that wherever US troops patrol, insurgent attacks and civilian loss of life are sure to follow.
Iraqis crave security and something approaching a normal life, but such goals remain elusive. Along the highways in southern, predominantly Shiite, Iraq, villages and towns have posted signs along the road requesting in English that the foreign troops remain outside their municipalities. “This is a peaceful area,” one sign reads. “Please do not enter.” In Baghdad al-Jadida, a middle-class neighborhood that was the site of a suicide car-bombing in July that killed one US soldier and twenty-seven children, mourning parents placed as much blame on the US troops, who were handing out candy, as they did on the man who had driven his car into the crowd.
“I think if you go back to the [January] election campaign, every list promised to provide security and help our friends in the multinational forces go home,” said Adnan al-Janabi, one of the eighty-two members of the 275-member Iraqi National Assembly who in June signed a letter calling for the withdrawal of the US military and other foreign forces. When pressed, most Assembly members will admit that it is less than ideal to have foreign troops in their country (since June several dozen more have informally indicated their agreement with the letter). The fact that only a minority of parliamentarians are calling for withdrawal is indicative of the groups that took part in the elections. Underrepresented in the signing of the letter, and in the Assembly itself, are members of the country’s Sunni Arab community, most of whom did not participate in the elections for fear of retribution or out of a refusal to legitimize the process. If, as many of their leaders have urged, they participate in the October referendum on the Constitution and in the elections scheduled for December, the number of politicians seeking to hasten the speedy exit of US troops will certainly increase. Both those boycotting participation in the government and those in the armed resistance, mostly Sunni, have repeatedly demanded a timetable for withdrawal.
The movement for withdrawal is centered on a desire to restore full sovereignty to the Iraqi government, which at present does not have any jurisdiction over foreign troops. The US-dominated international force was officially “invited” to stay under an agreement last year between the US military and former US-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The Transitional Administrative Law, the document that laid out the process by which the Governing Council was replaced by January’s elections, grants the Assembly the right to negotiate a status of forces agreement governing the activities of foreign troops. Nonetheless, this past April the new prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, extended the Allawi agreement without putting the matter before the Assembly. This infuriated many Assembly members and led to the June letter, which reads in part:
We have made an appeal that has been ignored by the National Assembly, and what’s more serious is that the Iraqi government has asked the UN Security Council to prolong the period for the invader’s troops without asking the representatives of the people, the National Assembly…. We, from the position of historical responsibility, refuse to legalize the invasion, and we ask once more to pull them out.
“I think you’ll find that more than a majority of the National Assembly feels the prime minister has gone over our heads,” said Janabi, a secular Sunni and a member of Allawi’s Iraqi List, whose members are one component of the coalition for the pullout. But a large majority of that coalition is actually from the so-called Shiite list, or United Iraqi Alliance, which took 141 seats in the January elections. Thus the people the US occupation helped bring to power are now seeking to end the American presence.
On Assembly member Falah Hassan’s desk in his small office in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum of northeast Baghdad, sits a picture of a friend killed during the summer of 2004 in the fighting between the US military and the Madhi Army, the militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr City is much quieter this summer, but anti-American sentiment is just as deep.
“Pulling out American troops from Iraq is the demand of the people of Iraq. In March millions of people came out to demonstrations seeking the pullout,” said Hassan, a member of Sadr’s party and the author of the June letter. Hassan’s numbers are exaggerated, but certainly hundreds of thousands poured into the streets. The demonstrations were the largest the country had seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In July Sadr’s office collected more than a million signatures in the span of a couple of weeks on a petition calling for withdrawal. “We are asking them to stop torturing and terrifying people and killing Iraqis,” said Hassan.
A few weeks after the letter was circulated, the Assembly voted to create a sovereignty committee to meet with the defense and interior ministers to discuss drawing up a timeline for the rebuilding of Iraqi security forces and, potentially, for US withdrawal. While Hassan believes that the US government is purposely trying to prolong the military’s stay in Iraq, other Iraqi politicians believe the public mood inside the United States is beginning to favor withdrawal. Many in the latter group, primarily Kurds and some Shiites, are ambivalent about a US departure and are afraid that full-scale civil war and chaos will result.
The Americans “have to have a schedule for their leaving Iraq, and have a schedule for the preparing of Iraqi forces and making an agreement for [the US] presence,” said Salama al-Khafaji, a member of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Khafaji wants an end to the occupation and is a signatory of the June letter, but, she said, “we want it to be a bilateral withdrawal.” Khafaji, who chairs the Assembly’s human rights committee, may be a gradualist on the question of withdrawal, but she is nonetheless deeply concerned about the detention facilities US troops operate independent of the Iraqi justice system. They now hold more than 10,000 prisoners in three major camps across the country, and 1,000-1,500 at any given time in smaller facilities on military bases. Abu Ghraib near Baghdad and Camp Bucca near Basra have become recruiting centers for the insurgency. “The prisoners in the prisons, they collect together, and the hardened ones teach the others how to become terrorists,” she said.
Khafaji believes that serious moves toward a pullout will dry up recruitment efforts by jihadi groups. “It will affect those with extreme religious ideas,” she said. “The Salafi, the Wahhabi. This will affect them, that American troops are having these types of aims and that they are going to withdraw. This will decrease their reasons to fight.”
Jawad al-Maliky, a prominent member of Prime Minister Jaafari’s Dawa Party, is also the head of the Assembly’s defense subcommittee, to which the timetable measure will be referred. “We have the sovereignty on paper. In the meantime, we do not have sovereignty in the political or the economic arena,” Maliky said, referring to US advisers in Baghdad’s ministries. Maliky and other Assembly members say these advisers have veto power over allocation of finances and major policy decisions. “We would like things to get back to where they were under international law.”
“We call this a ‘leak in sovereignty,'” Hassan, the Sadr official, said with a wry smile. Bahaa al-Araji, an Assembly member who forwarded Hassan’s letter to the US Congress and the UN, said he had received no response from either. Both Maliky and Hassan cite UN Security Council Resolution 1546, which recognized a sovereign Iraqi government as of the June 2004 “transition of power,” as the basis for their motion calling for withdrawal.
In July Jaafari said US troops might be pulled out of some cities within six months, no doubt deferring to popular sentiment. Maliky denies there is pressure from the US side not to speak of withdrawal. But after Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, said in mid-September that as many as 50,000 US troops could be withdrawn by the end of 2005, he changed his tune at a joint White House press conference the next day, claiming he did not want to set a timetable.
“We have stood against Jaafari, who thinks the Americans should stay,” said Fatah al-Sheik, a young politician from Sadr City and the editor of a newspaper that takes the Sadr line. Sheik, a fast-talking and engaging polemicist, has been arguing for a pullout on Arab satellite-news talk shows. He said Jaafari’s supporters “are very much embarrassed to talk about this subject, because by prolonging the stay of the Americans, they do not recognize people’s hopes. People want a promise that the Americans will leave. They were saying that we cannot ask for a pullout before building the security forces. We told them that we should have a timetable for withdrawal that is parallel to the buildup of Iraqi forces.” Sheik’s specific complaints about the occupation and the humiliating loss of sovereignty have great resonance with the public. “Give back the government’s palace,” he said, referring to Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace compound in the center of Baghdad, which has become the sprawling US-controlled Green Zone.
It is clear that Assembly members are beginning to feel pressure to address the issue. Hussain al-Shahristani, an Assembly member from the same coalition list of parties on which Maliky and Hassan ran in January’s election, did not sign the June letter but bristles at the suggestion that he opposes it. “I am waiting for the recommendations of the defense subcommittee before expressing views or making recommendations,” Shahristani said.
What Iraq will look like in the wake of a US withdrawal is uncertain. Already, Shiite political parties in the south, which is relatively stable in terms of violence against occupying forces and the government, have begun fighting one another for power, while police have turned a blind eye to extrajudicial killings and allegedly carried out some of their own. In the central region a low-level civil war is already taking place despite the presence of the US military, which has also failed to stop Kurds in the north from displacing Arabs and Turkmen in a bid to win a referendum on whether the oil city of Kirkuk should come under the administration of the autonomous Kurdish authority, which already runs three majority-Kurdish governorates in the north. The Iraqi army units trained and deployed by the United States in hostile cities like Falluja are made up of soldiers from other parts of the country, whom the locals accuse of oppressive tactics and random arrests. What is certain, say many Assembly members, is that the occupation has failed.
“I’m asking for a timetable for withdrawal of the Americans,” says Abdul Karim al-Mohammedawi, a member of the sovereignty committee who spent more than a decade leading resistance fighters from the southern part of the country against Saddam’s government. “They are not capable of keeping security in Iraq. The forces they have trained so far do not represent Iraqis.”
Other Assembly members openly support armed resistance against US troops. “Denying the presence of US troops is lawful,” says Batool Qassim, another signatory of the letter and a member of SCIRI. “We do not find that the American people are doing anything to make the situation better. We ask that they help us in persuading their Administration to pull out.”