Commentary: Toxic pact for Iraq
The so-called security pact the US is trying to seal with its Iraqi allies is evidence that the Bush administration continues to care only about colonial spoils, writes Ayman El-Amir*
The Bush administration is pressing upon Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki a long-term, sugar coated security pact that would perpetuate the US controlling role in the country beyond the proposed date of its troop withdrawal by the end of 2011. Despite all the sweeteners offered, including a promise of pulling-out from Iraqi cities beginning 2009 and vague compromises on the privileges and immunities afforded to US forces that would remain in the post-withdrawal period, Al-Maliki is unable to sell the deal to his Shia alliance or to the multi-factional Iraqi political constituency at large. With the US desperate to get out of a divided and violent Iraq, with Iran's hawkish eye watching and sharp claws sinking deeper in the country and with Arab neighbours wringing hands of helplessness, there seems to be no easy exit from the morass the US invasion created in 2003.
As much as the Bush-Cheney administration wants to present a boastful exit that would vindicate its costly invasion and unpardonable destruction of Iraq, it also wants to secure strategic influence and oil privileges in the Arabian Gulf sub-region as a whole. It is seeking a legacy of sorts to embellish its eight-year- long dishonourable domestic and international record. In the tradition of the US presidency, it is a moral obligation that the outgoing administration does nothing that would tie the hands of the incoming administration in matters of the future planning and conduct of policy. However, since morality has no relevancy to the Bush-Cheney administration, its conduct of policy remains as morally flawed at the end as it was at the beginning.
Moreover, in the current presidential election environment, the Bush-Cheney administration is naturally more attuned to the McCain policy platform that vows to withdraw from Iraq only when victory is achieved than the Obama position to withdraw US troops within 16 months. It reflects the generational gap between Vietnam and Iraq, between viewing the invasion of another nation thousands of miles away as an act of patriotism and what in reality it is: an immoral and murderous act of nation- plundering. Therefore, the hype the Bush- Cheney administration is trying to market, namely, that it has accomplished its mission of ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and establishing a democratic model for other Arab dictators to ponder is simply an exercise in self-deception. As if Dick Cheney's Halliburton Corp, Blackwater USA army of mercenaries and the US military industrial-complex have not reaped enough billions from the invasion and dismemberment of Iraq, the Bush-Cheney administration wants a bounty for murder.
It would seem that nothing of the original goals of the 2003 invasion of Iraq has changed. They have only been repackaged and gift-wrapped. The US still wants a form of perpetual military presence and the political influence that goes with it; the freedom to conduct military operations; immunity from prosecution for its military and civilian personnel for acts they may commit on and off duty, and on or off base; a free hand to arrest, detain and interrogate Iraqi nationals; an unspecified timetable for withdrawal and a myriad other privileges that are tantamount to keeping Iraq, its government and institutions under the US thumb forever. It is no coincidence that neither the Iraqi government nor the US has made public any draft of the agreement for public scrutiny and discussion.
The US prefers to call the proposed deal a "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA), similar to agreements governing the deployment of troops in UN peacekeeping missions that are of temporary nature, to avoid in-depth congressional examination. The Iraqi government of Al-Maliki has to get parliamentary approval, even by a simple majority. However, leaked copies of the agreement have provoked Iraqi outrage. While several factions have withheld any public support or opposition to the deal, tens of thousands of loyalists of Shia leader Moqtada Al-Sadr, who called on the Iraqi parliament to reject it, marched in opposition through Shia strongholds in east Baghdad. A Sunni cleric fatwa banned the approval of the SOFA by the government or parliament and the Shia coalition of the United Iraqi Alliance -- the backbone of the Maliki government -- has requested in a recent meeting further discussion and amendment of some key provisions.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the agreement could not be reopened for further negotiations and that the US has adopted a take-it-or-leave-it position. So, it would seem that negotiations for a final US withdrawal are at a dead end. Only the Kurdistan political alliance indicated approval of the agreement as it stands. The situation is made more critical because of the imminent expiry of UN Security Council Resolution 1790 of 2007 providing for the extension of the mandate of the multinational force in Iraq "for the last time" until 31 December. Without the flimsy cover of legitimacy provided by the resolution, the US would revert to the position of an illegal occupier of Iraq that US international rivals, and Iraqi resistance forces, could manipulate.
Iran is the eminence grise in Iraq and future developments of the situation in the country occupies a significant part of its geopolitical strategy. It let the US occupation liquidate its archenemy Saddam Hussein while, by supporting Iraqi armed resistance, it made the price of occupation incrementally prohibitive. For Iran, the US role has come to an end as Saddam Hussein's secular regime is a thing of the past, Iraq is weakened by division along sectarian and ethnic lines and a Shia majority coalition is now in power. Iran offered the US a graceful exit from Iraq without preconditions or military advantage. To facilitate that, it helped scale back the armed resistance, which reduced the number of casualties and let the US take credit for it. The US did so by attributing the reduction in violence and casualties to the military "surge" strategy -- the 30,000 troops it deployed to Iraq in June 2007. The US made maximum propaganda advantage of it, claiming that enhanced military presence coupled with the improved efficiency of US-trained Iraqi troops have now made Iraq stable enough for the US to withdraw its invasion forces. Besides, most Al-Qaeda fighters had left the country for another mission in Afghanistan. Somehow the Bush- Cheney administration could not scale back its original invasion goals and, somewhere along the line, it started believing its own rhetoric that now, having achieved its honourable objectives, it is prepared to leave Iraq, at a price. It is that price -- to gain political advantage out of a notorious military invasion -- that has riled the Iraqis.
The Bush-Cheney administration has reached the end of its political rope but -- in its 19th century calcified colonial mentality -- it cannot accept the ultimate reality of the defeat of its project in Iraq. It wants a victorious exit and the fruits of its military adventure, which no one, except for the Kurds, is willing to offer. With time running out, only one of two scenarios is possible. One is to ignore the deadline of the expiration of the Security Council resolution, at a risk, and toss the problem to the next US administration. Should the stalemate persist, a second scenario will inevitably kick in. With the perception that the US is not serious about the unconditional withdrawal offered by Iran, a more vicious and sophisticated armed resistance, probably beyond the level of US tolerance, could be activated. It will be remembered that as part of the Iranian grand design to facilitate US exit, its ally Moqtada Al Sadr announced a unilateral ceasefire last year that still holds. Without the UN cover of legitimacy, armed resistance against US military occupation would be justified and enhanced. It would be less costly than the agony of the outbreak of a civil war that neither the US nor any Iraqi government could control. And that was the message Moqtada Al-Sadr, who now resides in the holy Iranian city of Qom, was sending the US through the massive demonstrations his followers staged against the proposed SOFA.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.