Is the U.S. losing its grip in Iraq?

April 2, 2010

The U.S. media proclaimed Iraq’s March 7 election a vindication of the U.S. occupation before the voting even ended. But the reality is different. Michael Schwartz, the author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context spoke with’s Eric Ruder about what the media failed to grasp—and put recent events into a broader regional context.

U.S. OFFICIALS are trumpeting Iraq’s elections on March 7, 2010, as a triumph for democracy in the Middle East. But the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki showed its weakness, both before the election, and during the results.

OF COURSE it's a completely shaded election. In the run-up to the election, there was an interesting kind of ambivalence, let's call it, on the part of the Maliki administration about this election. On the one hand, they spent the last year or so trying to woo local groups that they thought would allow the government, which exists only in the Green Zone, to appeal to the many Sunni and Shia constituencies that were angry at the central government and at the U.S.

At the same time, they began arresting many of the leaders of the Sunni Awakening movement, in an effort to create a double-bind situation in which the local leadership that developed in the Sunni areas would have a choice between going to jail or supporting him.

Toward the end of the election campaign, Maliki tried another strategy—to disqualify key election candidates, especially Sunni leaders. This was aborted by various protests—including, apparently, from the U.S., which found the response too dangerous. Despite the disqualification of a major Sunni leader, the alliance that included the most prominent excluded opposition leader emerged from the election with a tremendous proportion of the vote.

U.S. troops on patrol in Sadr City, Baghdad
U.S. troops on patrol in Sadr City, Baghdad

One important question to ask, and I don't know the answer to it, comes out of the wholesale stealing of the election that took place in Afghanistan. Maliki would certainly have liked to have that kind of a victory, even if it had to be stolen, but there does appear to be the incapacity to actually commit that kind of crime, given that there certainly was enough motivation to do so. Since the U.S. was probably not the deterrent, his failure to attempt wholesale fraud must reflect the strength of the opposition.

There are various forms of opposition that exist in Iraq at this point--the mostly dormant Sunni insurgency; the somewhat more visible institutional resistance in some Sunni and many Shia areas often embedded in local government; and what might be called the parliamentary resistance, consisting of parliamentarians who are representative of the local interests that elected them, and therefore are willing to stand up to both the Americans and Maliki—though their power to accomplish much more than verbal opposition is limited.

Less visible is the institutional resistance residing in various parts of the national government—notably the national oil companies, and the weakened but not eliminated agencies in charge of such matters at electricity and internal security; the labor movement, which has rejuvenated and is increasingly active; and various tribal and religious groupings that are either outside or partially involved in formal politics.

I think we have to say that this kind of multifaceted resistance floating through Iraqi society is exercising quite a bit of impact on the behavior of the government and the occupation. Virtually all these elements oppose the current policies of the Maliki administration, both with regard to oil—the big news in Iraq—and its posture toward the U.S. presence.

The U.S. government did not support Maliki's more militant efforts at fixing the election, but it didn’t oppose them either. And American officials have at least rhetorically accepted the preliminary results of an election that appears to be headed toward replacing Maliki with a new administration less friendly to U.S. influence.

The presumptive winners want absolutely no alteration of the withdrawal process. They want radically changed government policies. And they have—at least rhetorically—registered their resistance to the oil deals because of their accommodation with international oil companies. Of course, the U.S. complains that these arrangements are not sufficiently accommodating.

So it does look like the outcome of the election is going to create yet another set of problems for the U.S. ambition that Iraq become the headquarters of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

But these difficulties may not even approach what the U.S. military says it fears: a “breakdown” of order. Keep in mind that this government has almost no presence outside the Green Zone. Whatever debates occur will largely be about Green Zone policies that have only tangential impact in the rest of the country, with the exception of the policies involving oil, which could—if they produce new revenues—result in resources that could have a profound impact on daily life.

So it's very hard to know what the effect of the election will be. There will certainly be a fight over what kind of government to form. And it may, in fact, emerge that Maliki will be the technical leader of the government, even though the parliamentary majority will favor ousting him. The final outcome will be the result of a lot of political horse-trading in parliament.

I think that the reality for Iraq in the next five years will be more determined by what happens on the ground than what happens in parliament, or what is decided in the Green Zone where Maliki and the American diplomatic leadership reside.

INITIALLY, THE mainstream media reported the election as a major victory for the followers of Moktada al Sadr. The New York Times ran a piece full of alarm about Sadr’s “unpredictability,” but of course their real concern was not his unpredictability, but as the story also said, his “steadfast…opposition to any ties with the United States.” Some two weeks later, a new story line has emerged: the growing struggle between Maliki and Allawi, the U.S. puppet who lived in exile for nearly 30 years before returning to become prime minister of the interim government set up by the U.S. A Los Angeles Times article even quoted an unnamed U.S. official who said it can’t be ruled out that Maliki might declare martial law.

MALIKI’S THREATS to declare martial law appear to be empty to me. In effect, he has already imposed martial law, insofar as he has been willing to send troops to various places to crush dissent. If he were able to effectively silence dissent, he would have tried to do so before the election, since he has known for months that a fair election would net his fragile alliance less than the majority he needs to guarantee continued rule.

So why would he now decide to use martial law and more extensive military intervention than he has been using? So I think that might be posturing.

On the other hand, his rhetoric may reflect behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the U.S. This could be the first—or really a continuing—effort to justify continued U.S. military intervention, beyond the December 2011 deadline, when all the U.S. troops are supposed to be out.

We know that the leadership in the Obama regime is not interested in removing all the U.S. troops. They want to have about 50,000 troops there, which was the original goal from before the war. They want to have five enduring bases, which are already built and functioning with no sign of decline. They want to have 2,000 diplomats inside Iraq, housed in the billion-dollar embassy located in the Green Zone, running the headquarters of the American Empire in the Middle East. And so maybe this is going to be the occasion when the promise to fully withdraw is officially reversed.

All along, when the question was put to American military commanders about whether U.S. troops in Iraq were more needed in Afghanistan, the answer was, “No, they can’t leave yet. We have to wait until we see that the election aftermath doesn’t create a new crisis.”

To me, the subtext to that was that the election might produce a result that was going to be unacceptable to the U.S., and they might need the military to reverse the result. So it may be that when we hear Maliki say, "I'm going to have to declare martial law" and "Allawi is so unruly" and “He can't control his people" and “The Sunnis are going to start fighting again," it may be the expression of Obama administration anxiety about the negative result they had always feared.

Declaring martial law would be, nevertheless, an unprecedented step. The Bush administration’s approach was always more cautious than that. Declaring martial law and using the military to reverse the election result would be a departure in a much more militant direction.

There were several times when it was very clear that the Maliki administration was not behaving the way the Bush administration wanted it to behave. And, among U.S. military planners, there was all this talk about a coup d'état to replace him. But they restrained themselves because the threat of rebellion made it too dangerous to try.

There were also various moments when Maliki wanted to use heavy military troops in order to consolidate his power, and the U.S. restrained him more often than they allowed him to do so. So this would be a departure from the traditional American policy there.

Given the kind of desperation—and possible failure—of such a move, I do not think that they will try it. But neither would I exclude it, because in some ways this is the most desperate situation the U.S. has faced during its almost continuous crisis in Iraq.

The whole goal of Iraq as the U.S. imperial headquarters could be slip-sliding away. At some point, they may have to decide whether they want to re-escalate the war in order to try to re-pacify Iraq, or allow it to slip away. So it's not impossible that that could occur.

MY THINKING was that if a U.S. official is saying Maliki might declare martial law, that's essentially a declaration that the U.S. didn't get the result it wanted. And if the anti-U.S. currents headed by Allawi and Sadr are the chief contenders to displace Maliki, then perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to have Maliki bring down the hammer. This in turn gives the U.S. a perfect pretext for ripping up the status of forces agreement (SOFA) that mandates the exit of U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

YES, I agree that this logic has to be at least part of their thinking. But they may have a less dramatic way of ripping up the SOFA. They have said many times in the past that Maliki may feel that he needs to have an American presence, even if there's no disruption, for deterrence of internal rebellion or external attack. If Maliki can be returned to power or even act before he leaves office, they can make it look like the U.S. troops are there by invitation. Such a course of action, however, might also trigger vigorous, even violent, resistance.

The bottom line is that the equation of forces that's emerging after this election are very negative from the point of view of the U.S.—and that the Obama administration may decide it will need some kind of military action to reorient the forces into a more acceptable profile. That, I think, is quite plausible.

In this context, it is important to note that the Sadrists have made very clear their non-negotiable stance that the U.S. should get all the way out. In addition, the Sadrists have been very militant all along about opposing the presence of foreign companies in Iraq’s oil fields. They want a nationalized oil industry.

So that's a double-whammy, as far as the U.S. is concerned. The U.S. has given them any number of opportunities in the last six months to modify their stance vis-à-vis the U.S. presence. And while the Sadrists have given ground in a lot of places, they haven't given ground on these two points. Insofar as they will have major influence on the newly formed government, it seems likely that they will successfully demand hostility toward a continuing U.S. military presence.

Five years ago, Iyad Allawi was an honest-to-goodness American puppet, but he’s remade himself as a fierce nationalist. As leader of what has emerged as the largest single voting block in the new parliament, his distinctly anti-American stance is highly significant. And like the Sadrists, he is also very critical of the oil deals.

If Allawi and Sadr are able to make a deal and take control of the government—it looks like they will together be just short of a majority, but well short of the two-thirds needed to form a government—the newly formed government would almost certainly seek to gain full control over what could be dramatically increased oil revenues. This is in contrast to Maliki, who might be willing to allow international oil corporations to control the oil.

This could produce a newly powerful Iraqi government capable of working with Iran to establish a regional power bloc—the worst nightmare for the U.S. Just the possibility of this development would be reason enough for the Obama administration to be really worried. It's an interesting question.

Another element to take into consideration is the question of what forces are governing in the various sections of Baghdad outside the Green Zone and in the various regions and rural areas throughout Iraq. In some places, there is none. And in other places, you can say that government is provided by local formations that have arisen in this period.

So in Basra, for example, there is almost a city government, but not quite. It's a bunch of neighborhoods that are governed by the various local groups that developed roots over the past few years. The Sadrists rule in some neighborhoods, but they've been dislodged in some places. The Fadhila Party [a Shia party that came out of, but is now a rival to, the Sadrists] rules in many neighborhoods. The Supreme Council has almost nothing on the ground. In other smaller cities, there are coherent leadership groups.

Many of these quasi governments are headed by local leadership without any national presence or affiliation. This is particularly true where tribes have gained leadership; they can be locally powerful and well organized, especially when they have strong ties to the mosques and especially in the Sunni areas. So local areas can have coherent government, but remain structurally and politically independent from the national government isolated in the Green Zone.

These local formations constantly make demands on the national government, calling for their share of oil revenues and for oil resources to be put under their authority. So far they have had little success in claiming oil revenues, but much more success in harvesting local resources.

In Basra, for example, the local government has captured the electrical production facilities and withheld electricity from the national grid in order to serve local needs. In Anbar, the local communities have siphoned off oil from pipelines and trucks and used black market revenues to finance everything from local projects to the insurgency to criminal gangs.

It’s entirely possible that the quasi-alliance that the Sadrists are a part of, or a potential future quasi-alliance between the Sadrists and Allawi's group, would really just be an expression of the local groups working together on a rather uncertain basis to assert a national policy. And that national policy could then serve as a vehicle by which a real national government could be built.

From the U.S. point of view, such a “bottom-up” government could be extremely dangerous, because the one thing that such a government surely would be is highly nationalist. That is exactly what the U.S. invaded Iraq to get rid of.

So there could be a renewal of American aggression, a re-invasion of those local areas that form the power base for these various formations, targeting especially the Sadrists, but also the local Sunni base of Allawi in order to eliminate their institutional foundation.

This is, in effect, what the original war was all about, and the new war could look quite similar, including patrols, home invasions and wholesale destruction of buildings “harboring” insurgents. This seems like a remote possibility, but the shape of the situation may lead U.S. planners to consider this as a last ditch strategy to avoid being asked to fully withdraw.

MALIKI’S RESPONSE to the strong showing for Allawi is to assert that Allawi, though he is a Shia, had strong ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and that Allawi is intent on restoring Ba’athist rule, that is, Sunni rule over the Shia. So Maliki, who previously portrayed himself as more secular, is now playing the sectarian card. Related to this is the affinity between Sadr and the rest of the Shia parties in Iraq and the Shia regime in Iran. What role do you think this kind of sectarian logic is playing in Iraqi politics today?

SUNNIS IN Iraq do not have nationally visible leadership groups who aspire to represent their sectarian interest. Starting in 2003, the U.S. military has systematically targeted any group with such aspirations, except the handful of quislings who supported the U.S. attacks against the Sunni insurgency. These quislings, who pretended to represent Sunni interests in the previous parliament, have been hated since before the 2005 election, and they received few votes and perhaps not even a single seat in this election.

The Sahwa movement—called the Awakening by the Western press—has not coalesced into an integrated formation, even at the provincial level, and therefore has become powerful in various localities without generating a Sunni national formation. As a consequence, the Sunnis didn't really have any other option but this Allawi group.

The Allawi group has filled this vacuum by recruiting a number of important local leaders and quasi-governments into its electoral coalition. Despite Maliki’s effort to disqualify certain of the candidates, these local groupings delivered their constituencies to Allawi’s electoral list, with particular success in Anbar, where they had an overwhelming victory, and in Kirkuk, where they soundly defeated the Kurds and therefore served notice that this key province will not pass quietly into the Kurdish regional sphere of influence.

Allawi’s success, therefore, does not represent or even symbolize the survival of the Ba'ath Party, and I don’t think that anybody in Iraq really buys the idea that Maliki is floating about Allawi re-establishing Ba’athist rule. Most significantly, Allawi isn’t tied to the remnants of the Ba'athist establishment in any real way. The local groups that he is dealing with, some of them are ex-Baathists, but they’re not people who used to be leaders of the Ba’ath Party; they’re people who grew up during this period since the fall of the Ba’ath regime as local leaders.

I think that from the point of view of the people who are actually immersed in Iraqi politics—including even the most sectarian Shia in the south of the country—this accusation is not credible. Maybe Maliki thinks the accusation will mobilize people in the Shia areas, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to work very well. Maybe it’s just an expression of desperation.

OR PERHAPS Maliki is aiming the message at the U.S. as a plea, or a threat, for the U.S. to get firmly behind him.

YES, IT could be for international consumption. In fact, it could be that this is another effort to justify continued U.S. military presence beyond 2011. This initial salvo could later amplify into a call for U.S. military intervention, to bring into line these “obstreperous communities” that form the basis of Allawi’s electoral success.

In fact, he may even be speaking for the U.S. This appeal is almost too consonant with Obama administration interests—to discredit Allawi’s nationalist and anti-American coalition—and it may well be a simple expression of the U.S. Embassy’s public stance, which has regularly characterized Sunni nationalism as Ba'athist restoration.

But this is just speculation; there is so far no direct evidence that Maliki is a cat’s paw for the U.S. on this matter. The difficulty is that the investigative reporters aren’t over there finding this stuff out anymore, and this information is much slower to develop.

On Iran, I think the Iranian leadership has decided that it can’t be heavy handed in this situation, and I think they’ve backed away from the more interventionist efforts they tried in the past. Where they are putting the bulk of their energies, I think, is on economic relationships with the Maliki administration that would endure a change of regime.

They are supplying electricity to a couple of the provinces of Iraq—in fact, provinces with large Sunni populations—which are not hooked into the Iranian electrical grid. Many localities are now getting electricity from Iran after years of deprivation under the U.S. occupation. Imagine the impact on public opinion in these localities, where the U.S. was already detested.

Or, consider the Shia pilgrimage city of Karbala, where the Iranians are financing and constructing a modern airport, so pilgrims from Iran as well as the rest of the Shia world can fly into Karbala. Here again, imagine the impact on local public opinion as this new airport brings to the city hundreds of thousands of tourists willing to spend heavily on their religious pilgrimages. The Iranians have even begun refining Iraqi oil, because the refining capacity in Iraq is well below Iraq’s own needs.

So the Iranians are creating a kind of economic inter-penetration of the two countries that I think they see as a more durable way of creating an alliance than the more heavy-handed efforts to affect the military or insurgent situation that they were engaging before.

That makes them a far more formidable adversary to the U.S.

And the Iranians are not alone in their efforts to build enduring economic relationships with Iraq. Of all the oil contracts given out in the last year, the biggest single actor is the CNPC, the national oil company of China. These oil contracts have augmented other economic contracts that presage long-term interchanges between the countries.

In particular, Iran, China and other countries are offering to develop Iraq’s infrastructure, because if the oil is going to get out, there has to be an infrastructure capable of managing it over the long term. Various potential and actual trading partners are proposing to provide the roads and the pipelines to Iraq in exchange for a share of the oil production and revenue. And the Maliki government is very happy to discuss such arrangements when the U.S. isn’t telling him he can’t.

And keep in mind that while all this is percolating within Iraq, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—the mutual security pact among Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—is now inviting Iran to be a full member.

The SCO is an extension of the Chinese sphere of influence, and the Chinese are hoping to bring Iran—and then by extension, Iraq—under their umbrella. Such a development would create a bond between Iraq and Iran that’s more durable than any other kind of political machinations that Iran was working on before.

This is a dire threat to the Obama administration’s designs on Iraq as the capital of their Middle East empire. And it demonstrates that the outcome of the election is by no means the most important current development. Regardless of who becomes prime minister and who wins various cabinet positions, these kinds of economic relationships with China and Iran are going to be incredibly enticing. In fact, this would tempt any regime that’s not a complete creature of American policy.

WHAT’S THE difference between the vote for Allawi and the Sadrists? It seems they were both trying to appeal to an anti-U.S. vote.

THE SADRISTS had a combined slate with several other parties, but the way the election was organized this time individuals could walk into the booth and vote for the slate if they wanted, but they could also choose the individual candidate they wanted to vote for within the slate of their choice.

In the 2005 elections, the various slates would be given—based on their total vote—a certain number of parliamentary seats, and the leaders of the slates would then designate which of their candidates would become members of parliament. Now, while the number of parliamentary seats won by the list is still determined in the same way, the actual candidates selected for election is being determined by their individual vote total.

So it turns out that many voters walked into the polling booth and chose to vote specifically for the Sadrist candidates from the national slate in which the Sadrists participated. This was true in Baghdad especially, and it was also true in several of the other southern cities. In the province of Maysan, they were apparently particularly successful. But in other places, even where their slate didn’t do as well as they might have wished, the Sadrists did much better than the rest of the slate.

Now what that means is that ordinary people on the ground are seeking out the Sadrists, so it remains true that the Sadrists still have the base on the ground and that people are looking at them as a real representative of their interests.

There is no doubt in my mind that the social welfare function that the Sadrists have always attempted to perform in the working-class neighborhoods of Iraq, many times with some real degree of success, is still functioning in a very important way.

They have a real base, they can mobilize that base, and that base supports them because of what they offer the base in the context of this non-governed country rife with local proto-governments.

At the same time, the Sadrists’ fundamentalist point of view has moderated in many realms, not in the realm of personal behavior, but in the realms of political activism and the toleration of other viewpoints.

For some time, it looked as though the Sadrists had crested as the pre-eminent power in the Shia areas, but they’ve proved that they still have organization on the ground with a lot of credibility, because people see them as the ones that deliver some kind of economic answer to their problems. I think that’s of high significance.

On the Allawi side, I don’t think it’s that different, except for the fact that Allawi is mainly a figurehead. Allawi’s group is made up of a compendium of groups that have a local base, and it’s the local base that’s delivering these votes. When the analysis comes out, I think we’re going to find that it is the people who represent that local base who will have won the election in the various cities of Anbar province and the other provinces around it where Allawi has made a good showing, especially in Kirkuk, which is a fascinating instance of this trend.

The other difference is that the Sadrists are a national movement, or a quasi-nationalist movement with a presence throughout the Shia areas, whereas the Allawi group is a series of local groups that have just allied themselves together. As a result, they don’t have a coherent political position—there are Sahwa people, there are some old-time parties, there are people who have some real Ba'athist loyalties but were low-level Ba’athists.

So there are some organic leaders in the Sunni areas, but there isn’t a national leadership and only a rudimentary basis for a coherent program. It’s a jumbled group of formations that will line up on some issues and not on others. They may be able to agree that they want Allawi as prime minister, but there’s going to be a lot of disagreement over actual policies.

There’s going to be a lot of demands for just local answers. Each locality where the Allawi coalition prevailed will ask, “Where’s our stuff?” whereas the Sadrists might articulate a coherent policy posture supported by all their members of parliament—and, perhaps far more important—all of their local leaders.

TO SUMMARIZE what you’re arguing, the U.S. expected the elections to provide a stable government, but instead they resulted in a weak, fractured government. As a consequence, Iran is now the most powerful state in the region, and seven years on, the U.S. has little to show for the immense expenditure of blood and treasure in Iraq.

I THINK that’s a pretty good summary. But if you were looking for a way for the Obama administration to feel at least a little good about the situation, you could point to the oil contracts that could get implemented and eventually would strengthen the central government.

Or you could point to the fact that Iraq now has a military force that claims 600,000 soldiers, which the U.S. thinks can actually be a fighting force—even though if you send it into a lot of localities, you can’t really rely on it to “pacify” much of anything.

So they’ve got the prospect of the oil flow, and they’ve got a start on a military force—two ingredients that could produce a coherent central government—though neither one is demonstrably operative. But even if these do become foundations for a viable government, the Obama administration cannot be assured that the government will be the reliable ally that has been the foundational goal since the beginning of the invasion.

So there are a couple of hopeful signs here for them, but each of those hopeful signs is itself more than a little problematic. I think they’ve got to be very worried. If they’re not worried, it’s simply because of arrogance of power that they still have not realized that the cards they are holding are not working the way they’re supposed to work.

So I think that Iraq, in a way, is at a crossroads. But I don’t think the election is central to the crossroads, but rather is symptomatic of that crossroads.

There’s one last thing I’d like to add. There’s an unsettled struggle on the ground in Iraq over the newly negotiated oil contracts. Most of the big players are state-owned oil companies rather than the old seven sisters, the Shells and Exxons and so forth, which are playing a less central role.

These oil contracts are supposed to jack up Iraq’s oil production, triple it very soon, and the various foreign oil companies are supposed to go in and implement the steps necessary to make this happen. However, there’s a lot of resistance, because the oil companies want to bring in foreign workers and treat the production as just another export platform. In other words, they’re in there just to get the oil out.

But at every level, the Iraqi national oil companies, the oil workers and the local leaders all want this oil development to be something that really enriches them. They want to keep the money and the power and the technical expertise inside Iraq.

Of course, Iraq’s state-owned oil companies are no friends of the people, but they are friends to themselves, and they don’t want foreign oil companies to control this new apparatus—they want to control it. And if they win this struggle, it will mean that Iraqis will be employed from the bottom to the top, that localities will be able to claim a share of the revenues, and the profits might well be reinvested in Iraq.

All this will be far less likely if the companies owned by foreign governments, notably China, emerge with operational control—but not impossible. And it will be almost certainly impossible if the international oil companies, like Shell and Exxon, obtain operational control.

But it’s not clear who’s going to end up in control. The way the contracts have been written, it’s very ambiguous. There are elements to them that limit the international oil companies, and there are a lot of elements that offer them a real opportunity.

The oil workers are very sensitive to this, and they’re fighting it. There’s already sabotage in the first of the contracts implemented because local leaders and unions don’t feel that local suppliers and local workers have gotten a fair share. So that contract is stalled because the local resistance is stopping it.

This same dynamic is going to multiply across all these contracts. And now, the new parliament was elected on a platform that these contracts have to be abrogated and re-written to give full guarantees for Iraqi control of the oil. So I think that is where the struggle is, because the economy of Iraq depends on what happens to the economy of oil.

Transcription by Tom Arabia and Matt Korn

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