16 July 2009 Edition

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International: IRAQ

Withdrawal fanfare disguises entrenched occupation


The fanfare surrounding the withdrawal of some US combat troops from Iraq’s cities to US military bases on June 30 has created the sense that the occupation is being wound down as promised by the  Obama administration, as it shifts its war focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iraqis celebrated in the streets and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki declared a national holiday – ‘Sovereignty Day’.
During his presidential campaign last year, US President Barack Obama pledged to lead a speedy withdrawal of US troops from the unpopular and bloody occupation. In his May speech outlining his administration’s attitude towards the Middle East to Cairo University students in Egypt, Obama reiterated his commitment to withdrawing all military forces from Iraq by 31 December, 2011, as negotiated in the Status of Forces Agreement, and said there would be no permanent military bases maintained in Iraq.
Anti-war sentiment in the US helped bring Obama to power. But by the end of the year, the Obama administration will have increased the number of US soldiers occupying Afghanistan to 70,000 – up from 38,000 in January. It has also extended the war into neighbouring Pakistan, with civilian deaths from US air strikes in both countries having increased.
So far Obama has been able to win a level of public support in the US for extending the war for control of this region, partly by pushing the line that the Iraq disaster is finally coming to a close.
But behind the ‘withdrawal’ fireworks and ceremony, the US goals for Iraq can be seen – and for many they remain essentially the same as they were when George W. Bush launched the invasion in 2003. After more than one million Iraqi deaths; after five million Iraqis have been made refugees (internally displaced and in exile); after the devastation of the country’s economy and infrastructure; and after occupation policies deliberately caused the embitterment and alienation of Sunni from Shiite, the Obama administration is as determined as Bush to control access to Iraq’s oil and gasfields and to maintain a US client state in the strategically vital region.
Head of military operations in Iraq, General Odierno, said on ‘Sovereignty Day’ that the US was committed to ensuring Iraq remains “a long-term partner with the United States in the Middle East”.  Washington aims to combine a more low-key but stable military presence in the country with an “administrative push” to directly exercise control over Iraq’s government departments, in particular the oil ministry.
These colonial goals are peddled to the populations of the invading coalition countries with the classic colonial line that the Iraqi people are “not ready” to run their own government and military.

Illusory withdrawal
Today there are no less than 131,000 US soldiers in Iraq – more than there was three years ago. Washington has said it will maintain this number in bases “outside urban areas” until September, then withdraw all combat troops (about one-third of the total) from Iraq by August 2010 and the remainder by the end of 2011.
The June 30 New York Times said the US military had ordered soldiers “to remain in garrison for the next few days to give the Iraqis a chance to demonstrate that they are in control”. But while the troops were ordered to remain in their bases “for a few days” they will not be confined to barracks.
Obama said in February that the US’s “combat mission” will officially end on 31 August 2010, when it is expected that there will be a 50,000-strong “transition force” in the country to “carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq”.
The distinction between “combat operations” and supposedly non-combat operations becomes very blurred in this description and is basically meaningless except as a PR exercise. The occupation forces have also negotiated a new definition of “urban” with Iraqi officials, with two major US bases in Baghdad being classified as being in “non-urban areas” so they don’t have to be vacated.
The US will maintain a large degree of control over the Iraqi military, which lacks an air force and heavy artillery. As well as advisors accompanying major missions, US soldiers engaged in air force or artillery operations will be under the direction of US military command for years to come – the Iraqi military is not expected to have an equipped air force until 2015 and most military analysts believe an independent military is at least 10 years away.
The 2011 timetable negotiated by the Bush administration in its Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government has a “Paper of Record” which warns that: “Before American troops can really go, Iraq’s Army will need to develop enough of its missing [military and governmental] capacities to be able to fight on its own. The United States is going to have to help Iraq build an air force and a navy so it can defend its own borders – an effort that will stretch far beyond the 2011 withdrawal deadline.”
An Iraqi referendum coming up this month on the Status of Forces Agreement, if defeated, would in theory mean the US forces would have no legal figleaf to remain in the country until 2011, which has prompted US officials to pile on the pressure on the Iraqi government to cancel the poll.

US-based political analyst Michael Schwarz argues that the US operations in Iraq, despite talk of “democracy” and “assistance” amount to outright colonialism.
“Traditional colonialism was characterised by three features: ultimate decision-making rested with the occupying power instead of the indigenous client government; the personnel of the colonial administration were governed by different laws and institutions than the colonial population; and the local political economy was shaped to serve the interests of the occupying power,” he writes.
“All the features of classic colonialism took shape in the Bush years in Iraq and are now, as far as we can tell, being continued, in some cases even strengthened, in the early months of the Obama era.”
The US super-embassy in Iraq is now populated by more than 1,000 staff – all called “diplomats”  but including military, intelligence, and others – who already exert a high degree of influence and control over Iraqi government departments and the country’s oil industry, which accounts for 95 per cent of the government’s revenue.
The Iraqi government has little control over its oil revenues. The Development Fund for Iraq, which  receives the proceeds from Iraq’s oil sales, was established under the UN in 2003 and government withdrawals are overseen by the International Advisory and Monitoring Board, a US-appointed group. An Iraqi-appointed body was scheduled to take over this oversight role in January but Washington has delayed this, saying the Iraqis are not ready.
The Obama administration is continuing the push to privatise Iraq’s oil by pressuring the Iraqi  government to approve a deeply unpopular oil law that would introduce production-sharing agreements (PSAs), which would grant the international oil giants effective control over the country’s oil fields. In June the al-Maliki administration began auctioning management contracts to international oil companies, including BP, to operate existing fields – which while not surrendering total control of the oil reserves to foreign companies, is a step in the US-approved direction.
But the privatisation of Iraq’s oil is opposed by a majority bloc in parliament, the oil workers, the country’s main oil companies, and the majority of Iraqis, so the drive towards introducing PSAs will face stiff resistance – as will all efforts by the US to control Iraq’s resources, institutions and future.

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