August 8, 2008
"Obama and Bush are Two Faces on the Same Currency"
By PATRICK COCKBURN
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 Suddenly John McCain’s claim that US troops should stay on until some undefined victory sounded impractical and out of date.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.