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March 4, 2009

Finding Ways to Stay in Iraq

by Scott Horton

Those who bought into the slogans "Hope" and "Change" last fall should have read the fine print. We were warned. Over and over during the campaign for the presidency Barack Obama made it clear that "withdrawal" from Iraq on his flexible 16-month timetable meant only the removal of "combat forces." He has also made it clear all along that "combat forces" means whatever he wants it to mean – until he decides to change his mind.

At least he's honest.

On Friday, Obama announced in a speech at Camp Lejeune that 16 months have become 18, and that 50,000 soldiers and Marines will be continuing the occupation until 2012 under the guise of training Iraqi army and police forces, "counter-terrorism," and force protection.

No mention was made of the largest embassy one nation has ever built in another, the future use of air power, or the 100,000-plus contractors and mercenaries still inside the country.

These glaring omissions, along with the announced intention to maintain 50,000-plus troops in the country after the summer of 2010, add up to nothing but a ruse, a loophole for mission creep right back to full-blown occupation. Since many of the troops scheduled to leave the country will only be headed off to another war zone in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the entire exercise may end up amounting to nothing but an escalation of the Afghanistan occupation while the door is left wide open for more troops to be sent back into Iraq.

The alleged need to leave "counter-terrorism" forces in country is a farce. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" only came into existence in opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation, and it never amounted to anything but the smallest percentage of the Sunni insurgency, which tolerated them only as allies against the occupation. Long before the "surge" of 2007-2008 and the so-called Awakening movement surrounding those insurgents eventually put on the payroll by Gen. Petraeus, Iraqi Sunnis had decided they had had enough and marginalized al-Qaeda in Iraq virtually out of existence. The idea that without U.S. troops there, foreign jihadists would be able to take over and use their land as a safe haven to provoke the United States into invading again is beyond far-fetched. Worse is the belief that leaving "counter-terrorism" forces inside the country will make terrorism less likely. It was, of course, in part, the blockade and ritual bombing of Iraq from Saudi Arabia in the 1990s that provoked the 9/11 attacks on America in the first place, and it has been the occupation that has provoked the hundreds of suicide bombings in Iraq over the last six years.

Obama's claim that the mission is now changing from combat to training the Iraqi military to take our soldiers' place ought to be considered no different from George W. Bush's claim, when debuting his "Strategy for Victory" in December 2005, that "as they stand up, we'll stand down." It was a sham to delay leaving then, and it remains so.

The U.S. "embassy" in Baghdad – a monument to the hubris that gripped America's imperial court as it rushed to launch this war, and a symbol of their contempt for the democracy they proclaim so loudly to uphold and deliver to the world – is now the size of a small city-state within the heart of Baghdad. Its construction alone is proof of the widely held belief in the American establishment that they have stolen Iraq fair and square and intend to hold onto it until the last helicopter leaves the roof.

Which brings us to "force protection." This is the most obvious excuse to leave infantry divisions in the country beyond the summer of 2010. In the speech, the president said he remained committed to the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and its mandate for the withdrawal of the entire U.S. military presence by the end of 2011, but if the withdrawal agreement remains the law up to 2012 and all forces are removed, it will have been at the insistence of the Iraqi people and government despite all of the best efforts of the empire to find a reason to stay.

Gareth Porter's recent series for IPS News has examined the push by Secretary of Defense Gates and Generals Petraeus and Odierno to convince President Obama to extend the timetable for the combat troops' withdrawal and begin renaming infantry divisions as "force protection" for the long haul. He doesn't seem to have required too much convincing.

The generals seem to be betting that the SOFA can be renegotiated indefinitely, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will certainly, they believe, ask them to stay and help him maintain his grip on power.

However, the War Party's ability to count on Maliki to backtrack on the withdrawal agreement in favor of prolonging the occupation may be in real doubt. Middle East corespondent Patrick Cockburn of England's Independent newspaper reports that Maliki and his Da'wa Party's position has increased relative to other major Shi'ite factions led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and that the day when the Green Zone government is able to maintain itself in power without U.S. help may have already come. When Cockburn first broke the story of the negotiations over the SOFA early last summer, the Bush administration was pushing to keep 58 bases in Iraq indefinitely, but over the course of the rest of the year, Maliki stuck to his position and forced Bush to agree to the 2011 timeline for complete withdrawal of all forces.

As Iraqi public opinion remains in opposition to the occupation by supermajorities, whatever legitimacy Maliki does have among them is mostly a function of his resistance to U.S. demands. There seems to be little incentive for him to back down now, though NBC News is reporting that the Pentagon wants to stay for another 15-20 years and is already negotiating the option of retaining a permanent airbase near Kirkuk, an idea floated by Secretary of State Clinton during the presidential campaign last year, as though the SOFA never existed.

Despite all the propaganda about how "the surge worked," no one seems to notice that most of the political benchmarks the surge was supposed to accomplish by October 2007 have yet to be achieved, and that a temporary strategy of buying off – and arming up – every faction can only be temporary.

Whether the Sunni tribal councils and the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government can work out a long-term power-sharing deal remains to be seen, as does the fate of Kirkuk and many other parts of Iraq that are still in dispute. The "surge" has done nothing to resolve these problems.

Any violence over these outstanding issues will undoubtedly serve as an excuse to abandon the withdrawal and continue the war indefinitely.

Many Iraqis watching Obama's speech may have been surprised to hear what a great favor the U.S. has done them by invading and destroying their country. They may be sorry to find out there's more help where that came from.


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  • Scott Horton is an assistant editor at Antiwar.com and the director of Antiwar Radio.

    For more audio/video pieces, including previous interviews by Scott, click here.

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