Iraq: Downsizing the occupation

At the same time Washington is working in concert with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on new ways to allow the return of a greater number of troops to Iraq. Whether or not these plans succeed: of the long-standing plan, so cherished by the U.S., to permanently station in Iraq a large number of rapidly deployable forces — as a nucleus of projection of U.S. military power in the region — there remains as little left over as of the ambitious plans regarding control and privatization of Iraqi oil production. Even if some of the displaced battalions from Iraq are now withdrawn to the neighboring countries, the forced withdrawal of the remaining nearly 40,000 soldiers is a mark of the failure of a costly and expensive war. “Put any spin you want on that withdrawal,” writes the well-known U.S. journalist Tom Engelhardt, “but this still represents a defeat of the first order, humiliation on a scale and in a time frame that would have been unimaginable in the invasion year of 2003.” [2 ]
U.S. President Barack Obama tried very hard to raise as little attention as possible with his announcement of the final pullout. First on Friday, Oct. 21 at 1 p.m. he announced it at a hastily convened press conference the day after the assassination of Libyan leader Moammar al-Gadhafi, which was celebrated as the final victory in Libya and dominated the front pages. [3] It was a remarkably brief explanation that officially ended a nearly nine-year old war. Obama tried to make the best out of the situation and sold the withdrawal as fulfilling his election promise to end the Iraq war immediately. He concealed, however, that his people had spent the whole year in Iraq putting all the levers in motion to prevent such a complete withdrawal.
The 2008 Status of Forces Agreement — the beginning of the end
According to the plans of the Bush administration the restrictive mandate of the UN Security Council, given in July 2004, was to expire in late 2008. This mandate had served as the legal cover for the presence of the occupying troops. It was to be replaced by a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, which would be the basis for a continued presence of large contingents of U.S. Armed Forces.
The draft presented by Washington clearly exposed Iraq’s intended role. Washington wanted to assure by contract its liberty to operate, one that exceeded that of most colonial agreements of the 19th century. E.g., it would allow the right to deploy an unlimited number of troops for an indefinite time in the country, and at any time would allow attacks on any target in Iraq, without the permission of or even of having to notify the Iraqi authorities. Even attacks on neighboring states would be possible without the consent of the Iraqi government. [4]
But as already happened with the oil law, that should have opened the oil sector to privatization, the occupying power could not prevail against the widespread opposition in the country. Even though the elections were designed to place predominantly pro-U.S. forces in the Iraqi Parliament, under the pressure of the disastrous occupation policy and the basic anti-U.S. mood of the country, more and more of Washington’s allies in Iraqi’s Parliament picked up the nationalist banner and went over to the camp of those opposing foreign rule. And the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried increasingly to distance himself from the occupiers and assume the stature of a patriotic leader.
Since at the end of 2008 the UN mandate indeed expired as agreed, the Bush administration was left no alternative but to conclude a much more modest agreement, which also contained binding dates for a phased withdrawal and for the final withdrawal at the end of 2011.
Renewal is unfeasible
For most Iraqis this extension of the occupation was a full three years too long. The agreement was reached only after one and another horse-trading session and with the Parliament leaving the final decision on the agreement to a referendum. This referendum, however, was never held.
The U.S. government and military have never made it secret that they did not consider the withdrawal dates fixed and that the agreement would only serve to gain time to establishment a permanent stationing of troops. They were convinced that the Iraqi government, from its own interest, would make it possible for the U.S. to further extend the presence of its protective power. The chances for Maliki to push through a new agreement through Parliament after last year’s elections, however, became even smaller and any regulation passed by the Parliament would have brought the people’s anger to a boil.
The original plan called for at least 30,000-35,000 soldiers to stay on. The U.S. General Staff already had arrived at that number during the whole decade. Finally, the U.S. commanders had declared that 20,000 military troops would be the absolute minimum. Finally, the U.S. negotiators insisted that at least 5,000 or even as few as 3,000 be permitted to remain. Yet the negotiations were already dependent on the question of immunity of these additional troops. For the U.S. military, it is one of the basic principles that their soldiers enjoy immunity wherever they are stationed. In Iraq, a further grant of immunity was virtually eliminated. None of the parties, not even the Kurdish, dared to guarantee formal impunity, in view of the pent-up hatred among the population of the crimes of the occupier. Maliki said at a press conference: “When the issue of immunity was brought up and the Iraqi side was told that the American side won’t leave a single soldier without full immunity and the Iraqi answer was that it’s impossible to grant immunity to a single American soldier, negotiations stopped regarding the numbers, location and mechanics of training.”[5] Maliki has ideas on what basis U.S. troops could return — but one thing ruled out is an officially guaranteed immunity.
At the time the negotiations collapsed, the number of U.S. troops had already fallen to 39,000. Only a few of the once 505 bases and outposts were left in the hands of the U.S. Army, including the huge megabases. These will be the most colossal relics left by the U.S. invasion. The Bush administration had built the fortress-like cities equipped with all the comforts for several billion dollars, intending them for permanent shelter for tens of thousands of soldiers. Among the bases, equipped with modern technology, which were to make up the permanent core of U.S. power projection in the region, is for example the Al-Asad Airport in Anbar Province. The expansion of the 50 square kilometer airbase — which was called “Camp Cupcake” because of the conveniences it offered the GIs — took place after the Status of Forces Agreement in November 2008. This showed how firmly Washington and the military leadership were convinced that they would remain in the country past 2011, with a correspondingly large contingent.
Massive defeat
The forced withdrawal is understood as a massive defeat across party lines in the U.S. On the one hand, of course, there is some fear that the regime established there will not last long without the U.S. troops. In response to questions at a Senate hearing, Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey said he was very concerned about the future of Iraq, for example. For this reason the U.S. commanders were all opposed to a withdrawal. [6] “In the end, the Iraqi government will fail,” was the general opinion of the frustrated American officers in Iraq. [7]
The cleverly chosen date of the announcement could not remove Obama from heavy attack. In Washington there was greater anger that the withdrawal would lead to further strengthening Iran’s position, both in Iraq and in the region. Rhetorically, this is presented as a threat to stability in the region. In fact, Iraq is now gone as a staging ground for war against Iran, which is not so tightly caught in the military pincers as before. Frederick Kagan, a senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, when he held the high command in Iraq, wrote, for example: “I don’t see how you can talk about containing Iran when you leave Iraq to its own devices in such a way that it has no ability to protect itself.”[8] And Senator John McCain, Republican presidential candidate in 2008, thundered: “This day means a harmful and tragic setback for the United States. This decision will be viewed as a strategic victory for our enemies in the Middle East, especially the Iranian regime.”[9] The leading candidate for the next presidential candidacy, Republican Mitt Romney, accused Obama of an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq” and said he “has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.”[10]
The Republican firebrands and neoconservative spokesmen have accused Obama of not seriously wanting an extension. From the beginning the negotiations contained a sticking point, because the Obama administration has insisted that the agreement, including the assurance of immunity, must be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, said Max Boot, author and foreign policy adviser to McCain. Even in 2008 that approval would have been difficult and today it is all but impossible. There are many countries in the Arab world where U.S. troops will operate within a mere governmental agreement, so why not in Iraq. [11]
Most experts admit, however, that Obama hardly had another choice. In fact, the U.S. under the Bush administration was already maneuvered into a dead end. One can hardly insist that Iraq is a "sovereign, democratic state" and then treat the Parliament openly as an occupying power would, especially given the generally hostile atmosphere in the country. Most Iraqis have wanted to send the U.S. Americans to the devil for a long time, but were willing, as they were thoroughly fed up with violence and battles, to wait until the promised withdrawal time. The national military resistance is still active and carries out dozens of attacks on U.S. facilities and vehicles week for week. However, the number has decreased strongly since 2008. Another delay of the withdrawal, however, certainly might have led to riots and a massive resurgence of armed resistance. The influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, currently an important ally of Maliki, also had threatened to order immediately military attacks against the occupiers should this happen. [12]

Maliki is making every effort to squeeze the maximum capital from Obama’s announcement by posturing on television as an unbending guardian of Iraqi sovereignty against the pressure from the United States: “This is a huge win and a massive success for Iraq and its diplomacy and its will and the wishes of its patriotic political forces.” In fact, it is above all a victory of patriotic forces Maliki himself, together with the occupiers, fought for years using massive repression and military force. Because of distrust of him and the U.S., the response to Maliki’s call to the Iraqis to celebrate this event in the streets was quite modest, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We are worried about secret accords to keep the Americans under other labels such as advisers, security contractors and trainers,” said Mushreq Naji, a member of Parliament with the Sadr movement, which is represented by 40 seats in Parliament and six ministers in the Cabinet. [13] In fact, Washington was realistic enough to anticipate the possibility of failure to renew the deployment agreement and prepared a Plan B in parallel. This essentially consists of two elements: first, transferring part of the allied troops from Iraq to the allied Arab Gulf States and second, establishing a large contingent of civilian occupation forces under control of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Troops move into neighboring Gulf states
The first was always an option, even without the war. The U.S. has already deployed 40,000 soldiers outside Iraq in the Gulf, with 23,000 U.S. soldiers in Kuwait alone. These had primarily been responsible for the logistics of the Iraq war, but also served as a reserve deployment. Now official combat troops will enter again, mostly in Kuwait. The total number is still being negotiated, but a first combat brigade of 4,000 troops should already be installed. [14]
Regarding drones, whose scope also increased sharply in Iraq under Obama, bases will also be used in Turkey. [15] The U.S. and Britain have also begun to move additional warships to the Persian Gulf. Even if the future aircraft can no longer take off from bases in Iraq, the airspace will remain for the foreseeable future under control of the U.S. Air Force. In what form they will also engage in ground combat remains to be seen. No one can stop the U.S. from using Iraqi airspace for possible attacks on Syria and Iran. The U.S. military presence in the region will therefore not be sharply reduced. We can see imperial policy carried on once more in its purest form. In the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We will have a robust continuing presence throughout the region, which is proof of our ongoing commitment to Iraq and to the future of that region, which … should be freed from outside interference.”[16]
This is not yet a full replacement for troops in Iraq, because the bases in Iraq are much better constructed and the U.S. troops there had a free hand, which the Gulf states will of course not grant them. Military cooperation with the Gulf monarchies will now be even closer. Closer cooperation has been evident since the beginning of the year, both in concerted action against the “Arab Spring” and the common war against Libya, and the current strategy of escalation against Syria. The Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar thus increasingly takes over the role of the spearhead.
The U.S. is now planning a new “security architecture” in the Persian Gulf, including an integrated “air and naval defense,” that is, the feudal states will get more U.S. and NATO-compatible military equipment — one can see the planned delivery of 200 Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia — and are directly integrated into the Western military structures. “It’s not going to be a NATO tomorrow,” said a senior administration official after the announcement of troop withdrawal from Iraq, “but the idea is to move to a more integrated effort.” [17]
U.S. plans are of course primarily aimed against Iran as well as Syria. The compensation of troop withdrawal from Iraq is thus associated with the preparation for an even wider war in the region. In addition, this means increased cooperation and certainly also the stabilization of the monarchies and the containment of the Arab democracy movement threatening the regimes that have ruled up to now.
Deployment of regular troops still on the table
Regardless of the above, U.S. efforts to gain a long-term stationing of troops in Iraq continues. Once the U.S. troops have left the country, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said before the Senate, negotiations will be continued over how many will return. [18] Maliki will travel back to Washington in December for the new talks. [19]
The most important starting point is a second, long-term agreement that the Bush administration completed with the Maliki government in parallel with the Status of Forces agreement, the so-called “Strategic Framework Agreement.” This contains many general agreements on future military cooperation. If this is to be a serious pact, then the Iraqi leadership won’t be able to avoid an invitation to U.S. troops, or so Washington hopes. General James Mattis, the head of the officers responsible for the Iraq High Command CENTCOM, will travel in January to Baghdad as part of a High Coordination Council, which was created with the “Strategic Framework Agreement,” on further military activities in Iraq and which of course would also negotiate “new forces agreements.” There are also plans to relocate various units in the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Finally, NATO, which currently has 160 soldiers in Iraq, will have opportunities through the expansion of their mission to bring hundreds of GIs into Iraq. [20]
Civilian occupiers
Either way, the U.S. will continue to have a military presence, Pentagon Chief Leon Panetta and Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey said, in order to calm the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate. The “Office of Security Cooperation,” under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, will continue to have a few hundred soldiers on the spot, and an even larger number of U.S. mercenaries, who will work together with the Iraqi security forces. It has been revealed that their responsibilities will be far broader than just the usual training in the weapons systems that Iraq has bought for $ 8 billion in the U.S. They will be working out of the embassy and ten military bases, not only as educators, but also as instructors on an “institutional level,” i.e., with Army staffs and police headquarters; their area of responsibility will even include military operational capabilities, whatever this encompasses exactly. [22]
That’s far from everything: for a year occupation duties were gradually transferred from the U.S. Central Command in Iraq to the Embassy. The already huge embassy fortress, which includes 21 high-rise complexes, will be doubled and will soon house more than 16,000 civilian employees. A good part of it, as Panetta suggested to the Senate, will be CIA posts. In addition, four branches of the embassy in Basra, Erbil, Mosul and Kirkuk will be expanded for $ 1.5 billion into veritable fortresses in enemy territory. [23]
The number of armed U.S. mercenaries who are assigned to the Embassy, is climbing already to at least 5,500 and will probably grow further. These are also mostly former soldiers, whose purchased equipment includes 50 armored military vehicles and 24 Blackhawk helicopters. [24] “Civilian” occupation forces will now take over former military functions that include not only missions to rescue embattled U.S. citizens or provide for the security of convoys, but also the operation of a “tactical operations center,” to direct the use of armed response units. [25]
This could also include U.S. Special Forces. The nearly 5,000 elite soldiers operating secretly were never mentioned in the withdrawal plan. [26] At least some of them will probably continue to conduct covert operations in the country, including targeted killings or kidnappings of opponents. In order to operate undercover, they need open support structures in the country. However, the Embassy may very well take this over, as it does in most other countries where such units are in use. As the Washington Post revealed, the number of countries where U.S. Special Forces operate has grown to 75 under Obama. [27]
Secret troops of the U.S. Army composed of Iraqis
Closely intertwined with the secret U.S. troops of the Green Berets, Rangers and Navy Seals operating inside Iraq are U.S.-trained Iraqi special forces. These are much more tightly bound to the U.S. military than are the regular Iraqi troops, in which U.S. commanders have little confidence. The most capable of striking is the 4,500-strong Iraq Special Operations Force, trained and set up by the Green Berets. ISOF is directly subordinated to Maliki, and is probably still “advised” by Green Berets. Every U.S. commander considers them a dream unit: A deadly Special Brigade, equipped with the latest U.S. weapons technology, which operated for years under U.S. command and are unaccountable to any other entity. The units carry uniforms similar to that of the U.S. troops and deploy the latest U.S. weapons, and are ultimately a secret unit of the U.S. Army composed of Iraqis. Within the next few years, the number of its troops will be doubled. [28] They were probably what General Dempsey was referring to in the aforementioned Senate hearing when he said that the OSC troops “will also partner with 4,500 Iraqi special forces troops” and sometimes operate out of the “counterterrorism headquarters.” [29]
According to the Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, one of the few genuine war opponents in the U.S. Congress, the announcement of the withdrawal would only mean “that we will simply be replacing one U.S. occupation with another.” The presence of heavily armed U.S. soldiers raises a problem and would “continue to foment instability and violence in Iraq and the region,” Kucinich continued. “We need to get out now, not just trade uniforms and personnel.” [30]
[1] See Joachim Guilliard, Irak: Magere Beute, Wissenschaft & Frieden 2011-2
[2] Tom Engelhardt, This Is What Defeat Looks Like,, 9.11.2011
[3] Remarks by the President on Ending the War in Iraq, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 21.10.2011
[4] see Irak: Besatzungsende nicht in Sicht, IMI-Analyse 2008/041 – in: AUSDRUCK (December 2008)
[5] Maliki Takes Hard Line on American Withdrawal, Wall Street Journal, 23.11.2011
[6] McCain clashes with Panetta over U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, CNN, 15.11.2011
[7] U.S. Troops to Leave Iraq by Year’s End, Obama Says, The New York Times, 21.10.11
[8] Troops to Exit Iraq by Year-End — Move by Obama Brings Nearly Nine-Year War to a Close After Baghdad Refuses Key U.S. Demand, Wall Street Journal, 22.10.2011
[9] Withdrawal from Iraq – Obama ends the “dumb war,” Mirror, Oct. 22, 2011
[10] Mitt Romney blasts Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq, , LA Times, Oct. 21, 2011
[11] Max Boot, Max Boot, Obama’s Tragic Iraq Withdrawal, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 31, 2011
[12] Moktada al-Sadr droht den USA, The Standard Sept. 4, 2011
[13] Maliki Takes Hard Line on American Withdrawal, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 23, 2011
[14] US brigade in Iraq likely heading to Kuwait, Associated Press, Nov. 2, 2011
[15] US shifts predator drones from Iraq to Turkey: Pentagon, AFP, Nov. 15, 2011
[16] What “withdrawal” means for an empire,, Oct. 31, 2011
[17] U.S. Is Planning Troop Buildup in Gulf After Exit From Iraq, NYT, 29.10.2011,
[18] Troops to Exit Iraq by Year-End, Wall Street Journal, 22.10.2011
[19] Patrick Martin, Obama announces US troop withdrawal from Iraq, WSWS, 24.10.2011
[20] NATO Trains Iraqi Officers At Battle Staff Training School, NATO Training Mission-Iraq, 3.11.2011
[21] OSCs report to the ambassador. Even if they wear a uniform, their members count as diplomats. They are also permanently assigned in other countries for military cooperation with the host country, for arms supplies, etc. See Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal, Internat. Crisis Group, Middle East Report N°99, 26.10.2010
[22] Iraqi military to get around 700 US trainers: officials, Daily Star, 23.11.2011
[23] Civilians to Take U.S. Lead as Military Leaves Iraq, NYT, August 18, 2010
[24] State Dept. planning to field a small army in Iraq, McClatchy Newspapers, 21.7.2010
[25] Jeremy Scahill, Iraq Withdrawal? Obama and Clinton Expanding US Paramilitary Force in Iraq, The Nation, 22.7.2010, Spencer Ackerman, U.S. Hiring Mercenary Air Force for Iraq Rescues, WIRED, 14.11.2011
[26] Last US combat brigade exits Iraq, BBC 19.08.2010
[27] U.S. ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role, Washington Post, 4.6.2010
[28] Shane Bauer, Die schmutzige Brigade von Bagdad, Le Monde diplomatique, 10.7.2009
[29] Walter Pincus, U.S.military presence will continue in Iraq, Washington Post, 22.11.2011
[30] Dennis Kucinich, Statement on the Announcement to Bring Our Troops Home from Iraq, 24.10.2011

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