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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 36, August 28, 2010

Iraq: Continuing Occupation with a New Codename

Thursday 2 September 2010, by Ninan Koshy


“There are people in Washington who never intend to withdraw military forces from Iraq and they are looking for ten, twenty, fifty years in the future. The reason that we went into Iraq was to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf region and I have never heard any of our leaders say that they would commit themselves to the Iraqi people that ten years from now there will be no military bases of the US in Iraq”

—Jimmy Carter (former US President), February 3, 2006

President Barak Obama’s announcement on Monday, August 1 pledging to complete his plan to withdraw designated combat troops from Iraq by the end of August “as promised and on schedule”, in effect marks only a new stage in the occupation of that country. It is highly unlikely that the US Government will allow a truly sovereign Iraq, unfettered by US troops either within its borders or monitoring it from abroad, anytime soon.

The codename of the US mission in Iraq will be changed from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, and the 50,000 combat troops will leave by the end of 2011. Obama claimed at a convention of the Disabled American Veterans: “As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility.” (emphasis added) “And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq will end. And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule,” the President added.

Obama knew that to his American audience the announcement would be a relief. To them Iraq is already history or they want to think so. For much of the British and American press, this was the real thing; headlines hailed the “end” of the war and reported “US troops to leave Iraq”. As Seumas Milne pointed out in The Guardian of August 5, “Nothing could be further from the truth. The US isn’t withdrawing from Iraq at all—it’s rebranding the occupation. Just as George Bush’s war on terror was re-titled ‘overseas contingency operations’ when Obama became President, US ‘combat operations’ will be re-badged from next month as ‘stability operations’.”

After August 31, another roughly 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq and be defined as “instructors and mentors” for the Iraqi Army, police and intelligence branches. In addition these American troops will serve as a sort of military safety net and help Iraqi security forces with heavy artillery command and control and the deployment of unmanned aircraft and other intelligence means.

The Iraqis know that the war and occupation will not end by next month. For them it is yet another announcement from the Americans. Moments have come and gone: transitional governments, fully sovereign governments, US-Iraq agreements: but there is little change in the situation on the ground. Obama’s announcement is just another moment. The withdrawal is at a time when there is still uncertainty about the formation of a government, months after the elections. There is no administration in Baghdad which can take “full Iraqi responsibility”. It is a country in dire straits that the USA, which came to liberate Iraqis, is claiming to be leaving. “The Western world, that slaughtered Iraq and Iraqis, through 13 years of sanctions and seven years of occupation, is now turning its back on the victims. What has remained of Iraq is still being devastated by bombings, assassinations, corruption, millions of evictions and continued infrastructure destruction. Yet the world that caused all this is trying to draw a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq,” remarked Maki Al-Nazzal, an Iraqi political analyst.

Will there be the promised full withdrawal by the end of 2011? Many observers doubt it. A spokesperson for the New York Republican Representative, John McHugh, reports that Obama told him that the promise of a full withdrawal may be reconsidered proper to the end of 2010. It is reported that there is a Plan B, if the Administration decides that troops need to remain. There are also reports that the Pentagon is considering plans for thousands of troops to remain within Iraq for years to come after 2011, perhaps for another 15 to 20 years. Such plans are premised on the assumption that Obama will ‘renegotiate’ the Status of Forces Agreement by applying tremendous pressure on Iraqi leaders to agree to an indefinite continuation of the occupation.

FROM early on in the occupation of Iraq, one of the most pressing concerns for Iraqis—besides ending the occupation and a desperate need for security—has been basic infrastructure. And here the US has miserably failed and betrayed the Iraqi people. Devastation wrought by the occupation, coupled with rampant corruption among Western contractors who were awarded the contracts to rebuild Iraq’s demolished infrastructure, are to blame. Ali Ghalib Baban, Iraq’s Minister of Planning, said late last year that the billions of dollars the US has spent on so-called reconstruction contracts in Iraq has had no discernible impact. “May be they spent it,” he said, “but Iraq doesn’t feel it.”

What is significant is that the US is not only continuing occupation under a new label, it is also privatising it. There are around 100,000 private contractors working for the occupying forces with more than 11,000 of them being armed mercenaries, mostly ‘Third World nationals’ typically from the developing world. The US now wants to expand their numbers vastly in what Jeremy Scahill, who helped expose the role of the notorious US security firm Black-water, calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq.

The State Department has asked the Congress to approve funds to more than double the number of private security contractors with a State Department official testifying in June at a hearing of the Wartime Contracting Commission that the Department wants “between 6000 and 7000 security contractors”. The Department has also asked the Pentagon for twentyfour Blackhawk helicopters, fifty Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles and other military equipment. “After the departure of US forces (from Iraq) we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State,” wrote Patrick Kennedy, the Under Secretary of State for Management, in an April letter to the Pentagon. “And to keep our people secure, Diplomatic Security requires certain items of equipment that are available only from the military.”

Using private forces is a backdoor way of continuing a substantial US presence under the cover of “diplomatic security”. Diplomatic security refers to, among other things, the security of the biggest US embassy in the world. The mammoth fortress that goes by the name of the embassy in Baghdad is the size of the Vatican City, comprised of twentyone buildings on 104-acres of land on the Tigris River and home to thousands of US personnel. The intimidating presence of this colonial structure is not only the symbol, but also the guarantee of the continuing occupation. One reason for that can be found in the dozen twenty-year contracts to run Iraq’s biggest oilfields that were handed out last year to foreign companies, including three of the Anglo-American oil majors that exploited Iraq oil under British control before 1958.

Then there is the “enduring” presence of the big US bases. While the smaller bases are being gradually closed, US military presence in Iraq is ensured by these “enduring bases”, the Pentagon’s euphemism for “permanent bases”. Some analysts believe the desire to establish a long-term US military presence in Iraq was always one of the reasons behind the 2003 invasion. Joseph Gerson, a historian of American military bases, said: “The Bush Administration’s desire is to have a long-term military presence in the region. …For a number of years the US has sought to use a number of means to make sure it dominates in the Middle East…. The Bush Administration sees Iraq as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for its troops and bases for years to come.” There is no evidence that there is any change in this policy under the Obama Administration.

Zoltan Grossman, a geographer at Evergreen State College in Washington, said: “After every US military intervention since 1990 the Pentagon has left behind clusters of new bases in areas where it never before had a foothold. The new string of bases stretches from Kosovo and adjacent Balkan states, to Iraq and other Persian Gulf States, into Afghanistan and other Central Asian states….The only two obstacles to a geographically contiguous US sphere of influence are Iran and Syria.” Many of the US bases in Iraq were always meant to be permanent as the Bush Administration announced during their construction that they would remain for the indefinite future.

The American adventure of invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a colossal failure, politically, strategically and militarily. In a recent testimony before Britain’s official inquiry into the Iraq War, Hans Blix who led the United Nations body that scoured Iraq for traces of Saddam Hussein’s banned weapons programme, used the word “absurd” on several occasions to describe American arguments for going to war. He also described Britain, the United States’ main ally in the invasion, as “prisoner on the American train”.

Blix concluded his testimony by saying that Iraqis had suffered worse from the “anarchy” that followed the invasion in March 2003 than it had under the Hussein dictatorship. Iraq was already “prostrate” under Saddam Hussein, he said, and the impact of economic sanctions and the invasion and its aftermath made things worse.

Dr Ninan Koshy, formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA, is the author of The War on Terror—Reordering the World and Under the Empire—India’s New Foreign Policy.

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