Has the U.S. won in Iraq?

September 26, 2008

The media-perpetuated image of peace and stability in Iraq hides deeper conflicts.

IF YOU'VE turned on the news lately, you probably heard a prominent politician exclaiming, "The surge...succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

John McCain? George Bush? Sarah Palin? Dick Cheney?

No. Barack Obama.

Speaking on Fox News, Obama was at pains to find common ground with host Bill O'Reilly, the network's reactionary frontman, even if it meant ceding enormous ground to his opponent, John McCain, and George Bush, both of them advocates of the surge strategy in Iraq.

Obama is hardly alone. He was reiterating something that has become a mantra in the establishment media and among most politicians: The dispatch of 30,000 additional troops to Iraq has helped stabilize the country, bring down the level of violence and improve life for most Iraqis.

Obama's only criticism of the surge was that it "did not put pressure on the Iraqi government." He was borrowing a page from Hillary Clinton in shifting the responsibility for what has taken place in Iraq from the U.S. to the Iraqis.

It is true that violence is down from the horrific peaks of 2007. There is a measure of stability in Iraq today that didn't exist a year ago, even if there remain deep-seated conflicts running very close to the surface.

The point, however, is that the escalation of the U.S. troop presence doesn't explain what is taking place. The real reasons for declining death count--which still remains very high by world standards, even if it's relatively lower than a year ago--lie elsewhere.

FOUR FACTORS, in particular, have come into play.

The first, and most frightening, is that the violence in Iraq has reached what economists call "the point of diminishing returns." So much ethnic cleansing and displacement has occurred, particularly in Baghdad, which is now thoroughly dominated by Shias, that there is less reason or opportunity for sectarian violence. In the process, more than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced--2 million refugees outside the country and 2 million internally.

"By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country," geography professor John Agnew of UCLA explained, summarizing a new report published in the journal Environment and Planning. The report states: "Our findings suggest that the surge has had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved."

Second, the Shia leader Moktada al-Sadr decided to stand down his own troops in the Mahdi Army in 2007, which led to a decline in conflict between Shia and Sunni militias, and between his own forces and those of the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government.

Third, Sunni militias decided they could no longer afford to keep fighting on multiple fronts at once, and decided to enter into a temporary strategic alliance with the U.S. occupiers. The groups that a year ago were called "terrorists," "Baathist dead enders," "al-Qaeda" and so on by the U.S. military today are on the U.S. payroll, and are called "Iraqi volunteers," Sons of Iraq or Awakening Council members.

Fourth, despite belligerent U.S. rhetoric toward Iran, the U.S. has relied on Iran to play a stabilizing role in Iraq, particularly in propping up the unpopular government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and in intervening against the Mahdi army and other "illegal armed groups" in Basra and beyond. "Iraq is turning into a U.S.-Iranian condominium," notes Noam Chomsky.

But all of these factors are unstable.

Though largely ethnically cleansed, struggles over regional autonomy could escalate into movements for the partition of Iraq, which would lead to even further bloodletting (Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, has openly advocated pursuing such a policy). Moktada al-Sadr temporarily called off his stand-down order once already, and could do so again.

The Awakening Councils have made only a temporary peace with the United States, and remain opposed to the occupation. Moreover, on October 1, the militias are meant to come under Iraqi government control. This will almost certainly lead to sectarian tension between the Shia leadership of the Iraqi military and Sunni forces, with score-settling and purges likely to force people back into armed opposition.

Iraq is also scheduled to have regional elections. Though the elections have been delayed already, and probably won't happen until early 2009, they are already providing an opportunity for Shia forces aligned with Sadr to challenge the more accommodationist policies of Maliki, increasing the chance for inter-Shia rivalries, as well as conflicts between Kurds, Shia, Sunni and other groups, especially over such vital issues as control of oil.

In other words, the temporary stability we now see could easily unravel.

In any event, the situation in Iraq remains dire: access to electricity and safe water are at terrible levels. The refugee crisis continues unabated. Women have seen their freedom of movement and ability to participate in Iraqi society severely restricted. The education system is a wreck. The health care infrastructure is even worse.

But more importantly, the myth of the surge's success is meant to create public acceptance for a continued occupation of Iraq, with U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, on enduring military bases, for years to come.

It is folly for any politician in Washington to think the Iraqi people will make peace with the continued occupation of their country, whatever deals Maliki may cut to preserve his own power and security.

As long as the occupation continues, U.S. forces sent to maintain the occupation will come under attack, Iraqis will continue to die in large numbers from U.S. attacks, and Iraq will be unable to form a government that can reconcile the enormous social conflicts brought about by the illegal invasion and occupation of their country by the United States.

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