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Juan Cole, Informed Comment: This is the Way the Iraq War Ends, with Bangs and Whimpers

This is the Way the Iraq War Ends, with Bangs and Whimpers
by Juan Cole, October 16, 2011

The Associated Press is reporting that its sources in the Obama administration are admitting that all US troops will have to leave Iraq by 31 December, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated between George W. Bush and the Iraqi parliament.

The US embassy in Baghdad announced the US Air Force has now handed responsibility for Iraq’s air space over to the Iraqis.

Bush was forced into that SOFA because US troops could not fight in Iraq without a legal cover if they were to avoid possible war crimes prosecutions and lawsuits. From June 2003 until fall of 2008, the United Nations Security Council resolutions recognized the US as the occupying power with the responsibility to provide security to the population (a duty that might necessitate the deployment of military force). But the Iraqi government did not want, by 2008, to go to the UNSC for yet another such resolution, because it was eager to begin escaping its subordination to the UN. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, US troops needed a bilateral treaty to legalize their activities in Iraq.

Thus, Bush had to sign what the parliament gave him or face the prospect that US troops would have to leave by 31 December, 2008, something that would have been interpreted as a defeat. The price the Iraqi parliament extracted for allowing the US troops to remain was an iron-clad guarantee that they would all be out by the end of 2011. Bush and his generals clearly expected, however, that over time Washington would be able to wriggle out of the treaty and would find a way to keep a division or so in Iraq past that deadline.

Last spring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began insisting that the SOFA was unalterable. He admitted that a new SOFA could be negotiated that would allow US troops to be brought back in 2012, but they would have to leave by the end of 2011 as the treaty specified. Moreover, he insisted that any new SOFA would have to be approved by parliament. I thought to myself at that time that the whole game was over with, since the Iraqi parliament was never going to vote publicly to bring thousands of US troops back into the country. It would be seen as a surrender to neo-imperialism. Moreover, it might well be that a majority of the parliamentarians even privately wanted the foreign soldiers out of their country. The Sadr Bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr, with 40 seats, certainly wanted the US gone, and they threatened to revive their paramilitary and attack any US troops who tried to stay. Al-Maliki does not have a majority in parliament without the Sadrists, so they were always likely to get their way.

The AP reports that the sticking point for the Iraqi cabinet was that the US side wanted any US troop contingent in Iraq to have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. This provision is called “extraterritoriality,” and it had been granted by the Shah in Iran to US troops in bases in that country. Extraterritoriality was an issue on which Ayatollah Khomeini campaigned against the Shah’s government in the demonstrations of 1963, which caused the ayatollah to be exiled from the country. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadr Movement are enough in the Khomeinist tradition that they would object to this provision. Even the more lay Shiite fundamentalist Da’wa Party, which al-Maliki heads, would find that a hard pill to swallow, given that they are Iraqi nationalists as well as Shiite fundamentalists.

Washington hawks had wanted to keep 25,000 US troops in Iraq indefinitely. The Obama administration had decided by this September that that goal was unrealistic, and decided to seek a small contingent of 3,000 or so. But there would be no point in having them in Iraq if they could not fight when necessary, and for that activity they would have needed a new SOFA or a legislated extraterritoriality. They got neither, and so the US has to go.

It turns out that the day on which the US military lost Iraq once and for all wasSeptember 16, 2007, when Blackwater private security guards, all decorated ex-military, opened fire in Nisoor Square under the mistaken impression that they were under attack by the ordinary civilian motorists there. 17 were killed, dozens wounded, and the incident became a cause celebre for Iraqis eager to see an end to a foreign military presence in their country. That the US courts declined to punish the perpetrators of the massacre was a nail in the coffin for extraterritoriality. The Iraqis wouldn’t grant it after all that.

The US will leave behind a failed state. A determined guerrilla insurgency based in the Sunni Arab community (though not necessarily widely supported by the latter) continues to hit Baghdad, as it did on Wednesday in a series of attacks that targeted police and killed 25.

Even though Iraq has a severe shortfall in electricity, its previous minister of electricity did nothing to ensure the building of new power plants, and he goes out of office with charges of embezzlement flying about his head. His successor is commissioning two new power plants that are scheduled to be completed in two years. One will be built by Hyundai, the other by Greece’s Metka. That new power plants are still only in the blueprint stage 6 years after Iraq elected an independent parliament is a testimony to the country’s political gridlock and extreme corruption. Iraq should be making a lot of money from its petroleum, but you can’t see where it is benefiting the people.

There are severe tensions between the Kurds in the north and the Arab government in Baghdad. The inhabitants of Khaniqin in the province of Diyala, who are mostly Kurds, are defying PM Nouri al-Maliki by painting Kurdistan flags on their houses.

The US keeps fretting over Iranian influence in Iraq, but that is silly. If you didn’t want Iranian Shiite influence in Iraq you shouldn’t have overthrown the Sunni Saddam Hussein and seated the Shiite fundamentalists as a controlling interest in Parliament. Now that Washington has put the Iraqi Shiites in power, it should expect at least moments of great cooperation with Tehran.

And so that is the way the war ends. No great demonstrations in the US against it in its twilight. It is ending almost by default, because the Iraqi parliament can seldom get real legislation done, the US is forced to adhere to the 2008 SOFA. In the background, the bombs are still going off and the country is riven by ethnic disputes. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. The US will receive no benefit from its illegal war of aggression, no permanent bases, no bulwark against Iran, no new Arab friend to Israel, no $14 a barrel petroleum– all thing things Washington had dreamed of. Dreams that turned out to be flimsy and unsubstantial and tragic.


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