President Barack Obama announced Friday that all United States forces will withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year and, as he put it, “America’s war in Iraq will be over.” But the complete withdrawal may not actually be what it seems and the way this announcement is being framed fails to stand up to scrutiny.
The Obama administration spent years trying to pressure the Iraqi leadership into an agreement extending the American military presence there beyond the previously scheduled December deadline to pull out. Many in the administration pushed for tens of thousands of troops to remain indefinitely, where others yielded to having only 3,000-5,000 soldiers left for training and security purposes.
An agreement to keep a few thousands troops as a contingent force past the withdrawal deadline came close to being ratified, although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki needed to circumvent Parliament in order to do it. But after the Obama administration and the Pentagon insisted the contingent force be granted immunity from Iraqi law, the deal went sour and Iraq’s leadership began to resist US pressure to stay.
But Obama’s announcement of a full withdrawal, with the exception of perhaps a few hundred soldiers to guard the US Embassy, may not be exactly as it sounds. In reality, the reduced level of troops is possible in tandem with an expanded diplomatic mission and a large presence of military contractors.
The State Department is expected to have up to 17,000 employees and at least 5,000 military contractors – consisting of private soldiers and retired army commanders – for this ongoing diplomatic presence, which has been described as necessary to provide “situational awareness around the country, manage political crises in potential hotspots such as Kirkuk, and provide a platform for delivering economic, development and security assistance.”
Obama explained in his speech that the US would have “a normal relationship” with Iraq going forward, which will include “training and equipping its forces.” Indeed, the Department of Defense is currently closing in on a deal to send $82 million worth of military arms and equipment to the government of Iraq. The deal includes, for example, tens of thousands of “M107 155mm High Explosive Projectiles” along with thousands more artillery charges, transportation and communication equipment, personnel training, and “US Government and contractor engineering, logistics, and technical support services.”
The “normal relationship” Obama referred to is of the kind that generalizes throughout the Middle East region, namely one characterized by large packages of economic and military aid to abusive governments and armies in exchange for conformity to US interests, as understood by Washington national security planners.
In short, many Iraqis may not perceive drastic change in the relationship with the US. According to the most recent Quarterly Report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq, the Department of State “will assume primary responsibility for a planned $6.8 billion operation” carried out “from 11 locations around Iraq, including three consulates and the world’s largest embassy.” Responsibilities also include carrying out “two of the largest Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programs in the world and to spend the $2.55 billion in Iraq Security Forces Fund (ISFF).”
As detailed in a declassified, partially redacted State Department document, a “fleet of 46 aircraft” will be “based and maintained in Baghdad, Basra, and Erbil” and will include 20 medium lift S-61 helicopters, 18 light lift UH-1N helicopters, three light observation MD-530 helicopters, and five Dash 8 fixed wing aircraft. Flight and landing zones, maintenance hangars, operation buildings, and air traffic control towers, along with maintenance and refueling will all be a part of the contracted construction operations.
Agreements will be negotiated with Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan to secure authorization for continuous Embassy flight plans between the three countries, which all contain a massive presence of US military, diplomatic, and contractor personnel.
The State Department’s $3.7 billion request for Iraq in FY 2012 includes funding for integrated programs of economic management. The United States Agency for International Development, alongside the United States Department of Agriculture, will continue to oversee sectors of Iraq’s economy, especially its natural resources, as agreed upon in the secretive Strategic Framework Agreement.
Ongoing US support for Maliki is also likely to anger Iraqis. He has circumvented Parliament, consolidated illegitimate power in a long trend of quasi-dictatorial behavior, harshly cracked down on peaceful activism, harassed and even attacked journalists that were critical of his regime, and has been accused of torturing prisoners in secret Iraqi jails. In a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, US envoy Ryan Crocker noted in 2009 that Maliki’s turn towards more centralized rule is “in US interest.”
Obama’s decision to withdraw is being billed in the media as a triumph of his campaign promises to end the Iraq War and his leadership in bringing the troops home. It is an example of “promises made, promises kept,” as one pundit on MSNBC put it. But the truth is that this decision was forced on the Obama administration by the nature and resilience of Iraqi politics.
The Iraqi people overwhelming want to see an end to the occupation of their country, which has wrought so much devastation and suffering since 2003. Some in the Iraqi leadership have been steadfast in opposing an indefinite US presence, like Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who in August said a continued American military presence in Iraq would be “a problem, not a solution.” The influential Shiite cleric-turned Iraqi politician Moqtadr al-Sadr has warned again and again that a US presence beyond the deadline would mean increased violence and has tried to find alternatives to remaining US troops.
In fact, the current scheduled withdrawal date that Obama has now pledged to adhere to was also the result of firm Iraqi rejection of US imperialism. Back in 2007 Bush administration had drafted the first Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which detailed a prolonged and continued US troop presence in Iraq with no specified limits and called for “facilitating and encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments” and for US forces to work indefinitely to “deter foreign aggression against Iraq.” This was overly egregious for Iraqis and couldn’t pass muster in Iraqi politics, thus the 2008 SOFA demanding full pullout in December 2011.
Troublingly, this announcement and transition into a so-called new relationship with Iraq has failed to introduce any sort of accountability for the vast amount of crimes the US and the Bush administration committed in its execution of the Iraq war. Clear signs of tampering with evidence and being disingenuous about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein should be prosecutable offenses, along with the highest crime in international law, namely a war of aggression (one without the justification of self-defense). Others including battlefield crimes and Abu Ghraib will continue to be swept into the dustbin of history by the President soon to be credited with ending the Iraq War.
The Obama administration has failed in their attempt to continue the US occupation of Iraq, conceding to pulling out over 40,000 remaining US combat forces by December. But given the current and foreseeable US relationship with Iraq, the future of the embattled country appears likely to fall into the US domain of hegemonic influence and into a reliable client state.