Iraq's Nationalist Surge

August 8, 2008

"Obama and Bush are Two Faces on the Same Currency"


Barack Obama was lucky in the timing of his visit to Iraq. He arrived just  after the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki had rejected a new Status of  Forces Agreement (SOFA) institutionalizing the US occupation. The Iraqi  government is vague about when it wants the final withdrawal of US  combat troops, but its spokesman Ali al-Dabagh said that they should be  gone by 2010. This is within the same time frame as Obama’s promise to  withdraw one combat brigade a month over 16 months. Suddenly John  McCain’s claim that US troops should stay on until some undefined victory  sounded impractical and out of date.

The Iraqi government seemed almost surprised by its own decisiveness.  It is by no means as confident as it pretends that it can survive without US  backing, but it unexpectedly found itself riding a nationalist wave. The US  occupation has always been unpopular among Iraqi Arabs since 2003. A  poll by ABC News, the BBC and other television networks in February 2008  showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis say that the presence of US forces  makes security worse in Iraq and 27 per cent say they improve it. The only  large pocket of support for the US occupation is among the Kurds who are  about a fifth of the population. Among the Iraqi Arabs, the other four fifths,  some 96 per cent of the Sunni and 82 per cent of the Shia says they have  no confidence in the US occupation forces.   The unpopularity of the occupation has been the fundamental political  fact in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein five years ago.  American and British politicians, diplomats and soldiers usually failed to  realize this. In response to the poll figures, which year after year have  shown that Iraqis hate the occupation, they produce self-serving  explanations, saying that in private " Iraqis will always say they do not  want us to leave immediately.” They then go on to claim, in the face of all  the evidence, that this means that Iraqis secretly do not want the  occupation forces to depart. Self-deception like this means that American  commentators often speak of the extent and timing of a US troop  withdrawal as if it was a purely American decision, something to be  decided by the outcome of the US presidential election. “Iraqis may be  deeply divided along sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and factional lines,” writes  Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies  in Washington and one of the few US commentators to have an  understanding of Iraqi politics. He points out that Iraqis “have a national  consciousness, a great deal of national pride, and they do not want to  be ‘occupied’ or have a US presence any longer than necessary.” During  the sectarian civil war between Sunni and  Shia in Baghdad in 2006-7 Iraqi  nationalism may have been at a low ebb, but as the sectarian slaughter  ebbed it has begun to reassert itself.

There is an edgy mood both in the Iraqi government and among ordinary  Iraqis. The number of dead bodies being picked up in the streets of  Baghdad is well down on a year ago, but nobody knows how long this will  last. “For the moment life is better but everybody has fear in their hearts,”  one Shia woman told me. And the fall in violence is only in comparison to  the previous bloodbath. Some 554 Iraqis were killed this June, which was  66 per cent lower than year earlier, but still makes Iraq the most  dangerous country in the world. Alcohol is once again openly on sale,  showing that the shopkeepers who sell it are no longer as terrified as they  once were of Islamic militiamen. But Sunni and Shia no longer visit each  other’s districts. Baghdad is still divided up into sectarian ghettoes sealed  off from each other by high concrete walls. The 2.4 million refugees who  fled to Syria and Jordan are not returning in large numbers. When they do  it is often because residence visas have become more difficult to obtain in  Damascus and Amman. The Shia, always the majority in Baghdad, seized  most of the rest of the capital in a savage war waged by assassins and  death squads two years ago. There is no sign of these demographic  changes being reversed. When Sunni and Shia try to get their houses back  in areas that have been purged by the other community, they are in  immediate danger of being killed. When a husband and wife, both Shia,  went to visit the house from which they had fled in the heavily Sunni al-Mekanik district of Dora in south Baghdad they were instantly shot dead and their driver beheaded. The militias may have left the streets, but they have not gone very far.


Tags: iraq war, nationalism
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