Myth and reality of Iraq’s “fragile peace”

October 9, 2008

Life is good in Iraq--or so the mainstream media claim. U.S. casualties are down, and political leaders in both Iraq and Washington talk about a "fragile peace."

Michael Schwartz is the author of the new book War Without End: The Iraq War in Context. His writings on Iraq and the Middle East appear regularly on such Web sites as TomDispatch and the Huffington Post. He is also taking part in the Resisting Empire national speaking tour sponsored by Haymarket Books.

At the end of September, Michael spoke with Eric Ruder about how to make sense of the new developments in Iraq.

THE MAINSTREAM media report that if Barack Obama is elected president, the U.S. occupation of Iraq will essentially come to an end because of Obama's opposition to it. Do you think that this captures what's going on?

IT'S VERY hard to predict what Obama will do, except that we can be very comfortable--or uncomfortable, I should say--with predicting that he has no intention of abandoning the effort to make Iraq into an outpost of American hegemony in the Middle East. He has never wavered from the claim that this can be accomplished--though, of course, in a different way than Bush is trying to do it.

The real hallmark of this difference is that Obama says he could withdraw one combat brigade every month for 16 months and get them all out. But if you withdraw all the combat brigades from Iraq, you still leave a huge number of troops there--roughly 100,000--because combat troops are only about one-third of all troops in Iraq.

Even if combat troops represented two-thirds of all troops, that would leave 50,000 troops there, which was the original estimate for the number of troops that the U.S. wanted to keep in Iraq on five very large bases.

U.S. soldier looks on as occupation forces set vegetation on fire in Iraq
U.S. soldier looks on as occupation forces set vegetation on fire in Iraq (David J. Marshall | Sipa)

So even the most promising of Obama's promises would suggest that he has in mind a permanent presence in Iraq and the Middle East. And he is more explicit about that in many of his documents. The most complete statements of his position can be found in an article published in Foreign Affairs and a speech given at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, which are old now, but he hasn't abandoned these positions.

These statements make it very clear that he thinks we need a powerful force in Iraq to prevent what he referred to as a rejuvenation of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Middle East--meaning that he wanted to be in a position to carry out strikes against forces that the U.S. considers antagonistic. He used the wonderful phrase "over-the-horizon force"--meaning that you have troops not where the action is, but on a strategically located base, and they can immediately intervene in any situation.

From his public statements, we know that Obama doesn't think it's acceptable to have an Iraqi government that is--to use what I think are his exact words--"unfriendly to the United States." Translated: He is talking about a client regime in Iraq, and this means that the current situation is unacceptable.

The current regime, which was installed by the U.S. and has been protected by the U.S. from all manner of internal challenges in Iraq, has shown dramatic signs of independence from the U.S., especially in negotiations around the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and around oil.

With respect to oil, this regime has started to look very much like a typical Middle East nationalist government that wants to control its own oil through the state, and use the politics and economics of oil as a way of asserting its weight in regional politics.

Obama's policy documents make it clear that he has set quite an agenda for himself: to maintain military domination in the Middle East with U.S. troops and a client regime in Iraq that will be a friend and ally with the U.S., that will have oil policies consistent with Bush and Cheney's oil policies (which Obama has never given any indication he wanted to change) and that will be a steadfast enemy of Iran.

The requirement that the regime be an enemy of Iran presents a particularly difficult challenge for the U.S., because the current government of Iraq is aligned with Iran, and the leadership of Iraq's government has a long-term alliance with Iran.

So Obama has an awful lot to accomplish in Iraq, and he has shown no signs that he's willing to abandon those goals. We can be "uncomfortable" in expecting that he will try very forcefully to maintain U.S. domination of Iraq by military means, which is pretty much the only weapon that the U.S. has to impose its will on Iraqis.

I therefore do not think we're looking at a withdrawal if Obama is elected. And I don't think, if you listen to his words carefully, he's promising a withdrawal. Effectively, he's promising to remove the combat troops once we have successfully defeated the opposition. But if these goals are not achieved, it's clear that he'll have to keep the military in there. And the number of troops he may decide he needs will be determined by the generals he appoints to carry on the mission.

CAN YOU talk about the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki? It was installed by the U.S., but as you mention, it now seems to be showing growing signs of independence


THIS IS a very complicated situation, and for those of us who are far from it, it takes a long time to figure out what is going on right now. And by the time we figure it out, some new reality will have emerged, and then we'll have to struggle to figure that out.

In broad outlines, a number of developments in Iraq in the last few months that have really changed the balance of forces for both the Maliki regime and the U.S.

First, there is the changing relationship between Maliki and the Sadrists--the followers of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

The starting point might be the battle of Basra, which was undertaken by Maliki, with the reluctant approval of the U.S., in April of this year. At first, Maliki was losing the battle with the Sadrists; instead of gaining ground, the government forces were being dislodged from their own areas of Basra. Then the Iranians intervened, and a negotiation was undertaken inside Iran among the contending forces.

Out of that negotiation came the pullback--the disarming and the ceasefire of the Sadrists--which was later extended throughout the country. This became the moment when the Sadrists decided that they would no longer mount armed resistance to the Maliki regime, though they've maintained since then that they are willing and able to mount armed resistance to the Americans, if the Americans carry out aggressive actions opposed by the Sadrists.

There are two ways in which this is significant. First, the principal opposition to the Maliki regime among the Shia stepped back from carrying out a violent resistance to the government. Second, it was the mediation of the Iranians that accomplished this.

This consolidated the long-term alliance between Maliki and the Iranians, and made him even more loyal to and dependent upon them. And that, in turn, gave Maliki a much larger stake in asserting independence from the U.S.--particularly because the Iranians have a very peculiar relationship to the U.S. intervention.

The Iranians are not altogether against the U.S. intervention in Iraq. After all, it got rid of Saddam Hussein, and they feel a lingering sense that they don't want a restoration of a Saddamist regime or a Sunni-based regime. But now, they would like to see the exit of the U.S. in a nice, orderly manner that would allow Iraq to become an ally of Iran.

The U.S., of course, has no intention of allowing this to occur. But Maliki now is in a position where insisting on the exit of the U.S. makes sense for two important reasons. One, it advances the cause of his continuing alliance with Iran, and two, it allows him to speak as a nationalist to his very angry base. Of all the reasons that his base had to dislike Maliki, the largest was his alliance with the U.S.

DURING THE war on Vietnam, the U.S. put a string of figures into power. Some were overthrown from below. Others decided to represent the will of the Vietnamese people rather than be overthrown, but they were often toppled in U.S.-backed coups. Do you think Maliki could be overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup?

I THINK that we've passed through to the other side in terms of the possibility of a U.S.-organized coup against Maliki.

I think there was a period of time when that was a potentially viable option, and American leaders were considering it at various moments, and they had good reason to believe they could get away with it, although it might have backfired horribly.

But I think we've passed that point now, because there are no forces within Iraq loyal to the U.S. that could be relied on to organize such a coup, and to organize a government that had any element of credibility with the people of Iraq. The U.S. can't go to the generals and say you should organize a coup, because the U.S. doesn't have generals in Iraq the way it did with the Vietnamese army.

I don't think in the current situation that there can be the overthrow of the Maliki government, based on a force internal to Iraq, until and unless the U.S. withdraws.

But under that condition, any number of forces could carry out a coup. Some set of parliamentary forces, the Sunni insurgency or the Sadrists would all be in a position to militarily defeat the government if the U.S. was removed.

Which is one reason why I think the Maliki government will never push precipitously for an American withdrawal. Even if it would in the long run like to see the U.S. out of there, it has to do it in a very cautious way to make sure it isn't vulnerable to overthrow.

There was a very important and critical offer made by the Sadrists, which then disappeared from the independent English-language media, but which may still be on the table. The Sadrists said they would throw their support to the Maliki government if Maliki insisted on a U.S. withdrawal. So an alliance is available to the Maliki government that would strengthen it enormously in terms of withstanding challenges within Iraq.

DOES THIS mean that all the talk about U.S. success in Iraq--whether from George Bush or John McCain or Barack Obama--is just a fiction for public consumption?

I THINK that talk of success is just rhetoric--just fluff. And the proof of that is found in the fact that the U.S. generals not only said that they can't withdraw precipitously from Iraq--they've said that they can't withdraw at all from Iraq.

They've said this in the face of generals in Afghanistan saying the U.S. desperately needs more troops, and there are none from the U.S. to send, and so they have to rely on transfers of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Yet the American commanders in Iraq are saying they can't spare the troops. This is not trivial. This is a serious statement that the troops are needed militarily in Iraq.

The reason is twofold, I think. For all the talk about the success of the surge, there is still a very large war in Iraq, and that war cannot be carried on by the Iraqi military alone. There are many military forces in Iraq capable of defeating the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military has no logistics, no artillery and no air force--all that is supplied by the Americans. They are essentially a set of under-resourced infantry units that are--for all intents and purposes--a functioning part of the American military. They cannot operate alone.

Two, the U.S. needs troops in Iraq in the event that the various forces within the country that are supposedly its allies need to be brought to heel. That includes the Awakening Councils, who constantly threaten to return to an insurgent stance if they aren't granted the concessions they were promised.

And that includes the Iraqi government--for example, if the U.S. must step in to defend the Awakening Councils against the Iraqi military, should the government decide to go on the offensive against the Sunnis. That's a possibility.

The remobilization of the Sadrists, which could occur at any time because the Sadrists have not been disarmed or dissolved, could be another reason that U.S. troops are needed in large numbers. The Sadrists have only "stood down," and they are capable of reconstituting themselves very quickly. As a matter of fact, there are large numbers of reports that say the Sadrists are building a much more compact and well-organized fighting force in preparation for the next round of battles, if they should occur.

The U.S. military is very aware of all this, and they feel that they need all these troops there. If they remove troops, they think it might invite efforts to expel the U.S.

So they don't feel comfortable at all. That's why they constantly use the word "fragile" to refer to the "success." From the point of view of the U.S. remaining in Iraq, the situation is deteriorating, and it has been deteriorating since the beginning of the surge.

AT EACH key moment of confrontation, the Sadrists--with some exceptions, such as the battle with U.S. forces in Najaf earlier on--have opted to retreat rather than push forward. What does this say about the Sadrists? Is Moktada al-Sadr a nationalist, a conciliator or something else?

I DON'T think we can really have a clear sense of it. Sadr is by no means the kind of leader who can marshal all the forces within his movement, simply by making choices.

There are strong currents within the Sadrist movement with different politics and different orientations. There is also regional autonomy within the Sadrist movement, with forces in different areas having different political complexions. The balance of forces is very difficult to discern, and changing all the time.

I would point to three elements that are crucial. One that you mentioned is the nationalist revolutionary movement that is attempting to expel the invader. It has a whole collection of nationalist politics, many of which are really ugly, and some of which are very promising.

The second current is that over the last two years, the Sadrists' relationship with Iran has changed quite dramatically. They have become much more respectful of Iran and much more (apparently) dependent on Iran for various kinds of resources and political leadership.

For example, during the battle of Basra, Iran was able to mediate the settlement, which involved the standing down of the Sadrist movement. The only concession the Sadrists got was that U.S. and British troops would leave town. This is a substantial concession, but the Sadrists got no concessions from Maliki and the Iraqi government. There was a lot of political interplay that could have taken place, but didn't.

The third current, which has always been there, is that the Sadrists are an organization with many, many corrupt leaders who are willing and anxious to use the movement to aggrandize themselves or the interest groups within the organization that they represent, such as family or tribal interests. So you have a large component of corrupt leadership that is anxious to sell to the highest bidder--and that is willing to sell to a lot of different, highest bidders.

All three of these currents operate at the same time, and it's often hard to tell which is predominant at any given time.

For example, you referred to the fact that the Sadrists have generally stood down at the moment of confrontation. Going back to the second battle of Najaf, they didn't stand down--they fought almost to the bitter end, until Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani mediated a settlement, which was fairly favorable to them.

That battle accomplished two things that are very important. One, the Sadrists took tremendous losses. Many Mahdi Army members died in that battle. Two, they antagonized the people of Najaf. They still have very little power in Najaf since those battles, because people blame them for the American bombing.

The Americans were responsible for most of the destruction there. All the Mahdis did was resist the Americans, and then the Americans dropped bombs and artillery shells all over the city. The Mahdis learned a very important lesson from that--lesson number two from Mao's "On Protracted War": You never fight a battle that you can't win quickly and incisively, without causing a lot of ancillary damage.

Since then, they have applied that rule relentlessly. They have never allowed themselves to be placed in a position where they had to fight a sustained, fixed-position battle with American troops, who could outgun and outman them, and cause untold amounts of destruction to their troops and the surrounding neighborhoods.

But it's clear that in Basra, where standing down might have been justified militarily by the principles of fighting a guerrilla war, they accepted Maliki and the Iraqi government as a dominant force in the city, something that hadn't existed before and wasn't a necessary part of avoiding a confrontation with overwhelming U.S. air power.

HOW MUCH clout does Iran really have in Iraq now, given what you've said about the growing linkages, alliances and interconnections with both Maliki and Sadr?

A LOT of observers who are very savvy about Iraq consider the symbiosis between Iran and Iraq as virtually irrevocable.

To me, the most telling example is Diyala province, which is the province with the most fighting right now. The Sunni insurgency remains very strong there, and there's still an al-Qaeda jihadist representation. There is a major offensive of Iraqi government troops with American support troops. It's a very big battle going on.

And in the midst of all this, in the areas of Diyala that aren't quite as violent as the hot spots, there's an interesting process. Diyala borders on Iran, and they've begun building energy connections to Iran. So Iraq is importing electricity from Iran, and for the first time in three years, the amount of electricity available to the people of Diyala province is increasing rather than decreasing.

So the idea that it's possible to get a portion of this Iranian electricity is beginning to spread through the province. In some areas of Diyala, they have 12 hours of electricity a day, as compared to Baghdad, where most places only get two hours of electricity a day.

From an economic point of view, these relationships are very promising for Iraqis. Iran has a lot of resources that Iraq needs, in terms of ongoing commerce as well as reconstructing the country. And Iran has lots of money with which to provide foreign aid to Iraq, including construction skills. The U.S., on the other hand, is unwilling and/or unable to give this.

So there is this developing economic relationship more fundamental than the political or military relationships that might exist between Iran and Iraq.

And this is a long-term process. So if you're a loyalist of the Sadrists or the Fadhila party--which were traditionally the nationalist Shia groupings that were not allied with Iran (and were even antagonistic to it)--you are now faced with the fact that the businesspeople areas among your base are starting to make commercial deals with Iran and benefit from these relationships.

This kind of alliance is "sticky," in the sense that Iraq is not simply dependent on Iran, but there's a growing interdependence between the two countries and lots of commerce and people going across the border. That's what's consolidating the close ties to Iran--in addition to Iran's generosity with its resources.

A good example of this is the airport that Iran is building in Najaf. It certainly serves Iran's nationalist interests to provide their pilgrims with a comfortable way of visiting the holy city--they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't. But from the Iraqi side, this relationship also holds great promise for bringing development and prosperity, instead of this ongoing economic disaster that the American occupation produces.

CAN YOU decipher the underlying issues at play in the negotiations of the Status of Forces Agreement?

I THINK the U.S. and Iraq are presently at a stalemate in the negotiations. They can't agree on either the way in which U.S. troops would be deployed within Iraq, or the immunity questions. The immunity questions involve the U.S. position that its troops be able to do whatever they want with impunity--while the Iraqis want them to either be under the jurisdiction of Iraqi law or under the command of Iraqi authorities. The latter condition would bar the U.S. from undertaking military activities unless they got permission.

If they don't settle these issues by December, they will almost certainly go back to the UN. And despite the vote of Iraq's parliament that the UN mandate (which makes the U.S. presence in Iraq legal under international law) shouldn't be extended past December 31, they'll ask the UN for an extension, and then delay the negotiations until the next U.S. president take office. Whoever is elected will then face the same irresolvable conflict.

There don't seem to be many people involved with the negotiations who hold out hope that the situation will be resolved before the end of the year. So I think we're looking at a temporary extension of the UN mandate, which will maintain the status quo, followed by a return to negotiations in the spring.

HAVE YOU come across reports of demonstrations and strikes that indicate a growing level of class struggle under the Maliki regime?

THERE IS a very strong union movement in Iraq that never gets into the major media here and is only rarely reported in the alternative media.

This movement is led by the oil workers union, and there's an ongoing attack on the oil workers by both the Iraqi government and the occupation. Just the other day, six members of the Basra Oil Workers Union were transferred to Baghdad in what appears to be an effort to remove local leadership in Basra. That struggle is continuing.

The oil workers and the rest of the labor movement have been the most powerful force in resisting the oil law.

There have also been regular demonstrations against the Status of Forces Agreement. The Sadrists have are the main organizing force behind them, but they are often joined by other groups. There have been quite large demonstrations in Baghdad and other places demanding that no American troops be allowed to remain in the country.

There are a whole set of struggles going on in Iraq--nonviolent, secular struggles that are very important, but we don't get a lot of information about them. Those struggles have no doubt been very important in moving Maliki to the anti-American position he has recently adopted.

So this represents a real force in society, but I don't have any sense of whether there is a sort of gathering unity--whether the bridges between Sunni and Shia demonstrations have been firmly tied together so they can coordinate, the degree to which the resistance movement in the Kurdish areas has any connection to this movement, and so on. But I do think this could play a critical role.

THE U.S. has put the former Sunni resistance on its payroll--for example, the Awakening Councils--and turned them into a pillar of support for the occupation, at least for now. Do you think Maliki wants to integrate these forces into the Iraqi military, and if so, is this feasible?

I DON'T think Maliki wants to integrate the Awakening Councils in his military, and I don't think he could effectively integrate them any more than he has effectively integrated the Kurdish peshmerga militia.

Technically, the peshmerga are part of the military, and under the command of the U.S. and the Iraqi government. But they are, in reality, independent. They are loyal to the regional Kurdish government, and any time orders from the regional government conflict with either the U.S.'s or Maliki's, they obey the regional government. Everybody is aware of this.

The Awakening Councils are much the same, only they don't have the centralized control that the Kurds do.

The Awakening Councils are local militias, commanded by local people with authentic leadership roles. The militia members are going to be loyal to their local leaders, who are, by and large, tribal leaders, so they have a social base in the local areas. Many of these leaders have become the dominant force in local communities and cities.

So Maliki can't possibly integrate them, which is why he's hostile to them. He could validate them and start paying them, the way the Americans do, but then he would be paying a militia that is politically independent from him. And they are independent in two ways--he wouldn't have any leverage to command them, but even more than that, they have their own local base of power, from which they derive a real kind of sovereignty in their local areas.

This would make the communities under their control independent in the way that city-states are independent from one another. That may be a bad term to use for Iraq, but that's what's developing underneath the veneer of a national government. The national government doesn't really have any leverage over these communities, so trying to integrate these forces would simply ratify the local leadership as the governing force of those communities.

That's the dilemma Maliki faces. If the U.S. military weren't there, he would probably have no choice but to make peace with the Awakening Councils or whatever other political leadership emerged in the local Sunni communities.

So this creates another axis around which conflict could arise--or another axis around which a peace could be negotiated. The trouble is that the axis around which the peace could be negotiated would be a peace that involved the expulsion of the U.S. That's the one point of unity that all the various city-states and insurgencies and fractions could agree on.

It's very ironic that the U.S. has participated in creating these two forces--the Awakening Councils and the Iraqi government--that, more and more, find unity around the idea of eliminating the U.S. from the equation.

THE KURDS have been the most thoroughly pro-U.S. of the three groups--Shia, Sunni and Kurds--that account for the vast majority of the Iraqi population. So is the importance of the Kurds going to increase?

What you've described explains why the U.S. has gone about pursuing independent deals with the different forces in the country--so it can balance its presence on three independent legs--the Shia groups that form the backbone of the Maliki regime, the Sunni Awakening Councils, and the Kurdish leadership and peshmerga to the north.

The only way that the U.S. could be expelled would be for all these groups, which are so internally divided, to get together and push for it. And any group that attempts to push for this expulsion on its own becomes an easy target for superior U.S. military power, with support from the other two legs. Do you agree with that?

YES. I think that's the U.S. trump card in Iraq. The U.S. can prevent each of them from having whatever it is that it wants by playing each against the other.

This produces amazing situations, such as when the U.S. practically invited the Turks to attack Kurdistan, and the Kurds said to the U.S., "We thought you were our friends, why are you doing this?" The U.S. says, "We'll send our troops in to defeat you if you make an attempt to annex Kirkuk to Kurdistan." And the Kurds say, "You're supposed to be our friend," but in that moment, they're the friends of the Maliki regime.

To the Maliki regime, they say, "Unless you start paying the Awakening Councils, we'll support them in battles against you." And to the Awakening Councils, they say, "You behave how we like, or we'll be on the government's side."

The U.S. military is very aggressively playing each part against the other, and using each part in U.S. efforts to subdue the others. But the problem with the divide-and-conquer strategy is that it doesn't really accomplish the U.S. goal of pacifying the country either.

In the national government, they've got a pro-Iranian fraction that is busily making all sorts of connections with Iran. In the Sunni communities, they've emboldened the insurgency to a considerable degree, and while these groups are no longer attacking the U.S., neither are they friendly to the U.S. goals of globalizing the economy and privatizing the oil.

And as a whole, all the groups are saying that they want their hands on the oil, and the U.S. is saying, "No, you aren't supposed to get the oil, we're supposed to get the oil. We want this oil to flow in huge quantities into the international market, unmediated by a government controlled by people who will probably use the oil revenues in ways we don't like."

So the U.S. can't accomplish its own goals in Iraq through this divide-and-conquer strategy. But no group in Iraq is in a position to be able to prevail. Anyone who sets out to accomplish goals for themselves--like the Iraqi government trying to make a package of oil deals that don't involve profit-sharing agreements--can't succeed because the U.S. can stand in the way, either by itself or by mobilizing the other groups. So no one can move.

But the evolution that is taking place, continuously building as time goes on, is the pressure for the expulsion of the Americans.

STILL, U.S. troop casualties are at the lowest point since the beginning of the war in 2003. Do you think it's just a matter of time before the changes and shifts we've been discussing express themselves more openly?

I WOULDN'T want to make any predictions because we've learned from the recent history of the Iraq war that any predications we make are sure to be wrong. But I do think that there is gong to be a quantity-into-quality kind of transformation, and then we'll see dramatic changes all of a sudden.

What we might see is a tremendous battle. Suddenly, the level of violence skyrockets, and the U.S. is in the midst of the fighting and finds it a necessity to have major battles with one or another of the key forces. You could imagine a battle between U.S. troops and peshmerga over Kirkuk, which could destroy that city.

I'm not saying that's going to happen, but I think we'll see something that transforms the situation.

Or the economic disaster that's occurring in the U.S. will finally be acknowledged as connected to the economic disaster that is the $3 trillion war, and there will be a political upheaval in the U.S. in which people say we can't afford this war anymore.

Or maybe the crisis will start in Afghanistan, and the U.S. will be forced to move troops to maintain a decaying position there--and in the process of moving those troops, that will change the balance of forces in Iraq, and there will be a forceful effort by the Iraqis to expel the Americans, either through political negotiations or a renewed insurgency.

You can imagine all sorts of improbable and almost absurd scenarios, and the only thing you can bank on is that some improbable and absurd scenario will occur. We're moving towards a time when things are going to break though.

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