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Reluctant to go

Published : Oct 07, 2011 00:00 IST

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Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq.-SABAH ARAR/AFP

Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq.-SABAH ARAR/AFP

Iraq: Washington is confident of the continued presence of U.S. troops in the country even after the December deadline for withdrawal.

WITH the deadline for the total withdrawal of American troops from Iraq fast approaching, the Barack Obama administration is making last-ditch attempts to retain a strong military presence in the country. After invading and devastating Iraq in 2003, the Unites States built a network of huge military bases in the hope of staying put there indefinitely. The new U.S. embassy opened in Baghdad's fortified green zone in 2009 is considered the largest such diplomatic mission in the world. President Obama had made the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq a priority after his election.

Public opinion in the U.S. has turned irrevocably against continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. It is estimated that this year alone, the U.S. has spent $50 billion for the continued occupation of the country. With the U.S. economy in dire straits, the Obama administration seems to have concluded that it cannot go on fighting wars on multiple fronts. At the same time there are influential figures in the American political establishment demanding a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyway, not many people believe that the U.S. has any plans to abandon its original motive for invading Iraq control of its oil and the establishment of a strategic presence in the region.

Reports in the U.S. media in the first week of September suggested that Defence Secretary Leon Panetta wanted around 5,000 American troops to remain beyond 2011. Panetta said in August that the U.S. was determined to maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq to make sure they remain stable. He went on to add that the relationship could be both diplomatic and military. According to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, all the 48,000 American troops remaining in the country are expected to leave by the end of this year. In August, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, announced that up to 18,000 troops would stay beyond the agreed deadline. This statement led to loud protests from Iraqi politicians, many of them belonging to the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi government depends on the support of the Sadrists led by the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr has repeatedly warned that any extension of the U.S. military presence will force his followers to resort to arms once again. Foreign troops staying on after December 31, 2011, would be considered as legitimate targets and they will be treated as tyrannical occupiers who will be resisted by military means, he said recently. But pro-American politicians such as the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset Iyad Allawi and Kurdish politicians and warlords such as Massoud Barzani, who heads the virtually independent Kurdish region of northern Iraq, back the continued presence of U.S. troops. The U.S. has allowed the Iraqi Kurds to run their own affairs without interference from the central government in Baghdad. Allawi, who was America's preferred choice to lead Iraq in the March 2010 elections, recently wrote in The Washington Post that the Iraqi security forces are riddled with sectarianism and mixed loyalty; they are barely capable of defending themselves, let alone their country.

The recent wave of deadly attacks against government and civilian targets inside Iraq has given the apologists for continued American occupation a convenient excuse. Washington has not allowed the Iraqi government to have a functioning air force or navy. The U.S. wants to retain control of the skies over Iraq and ensure that the Iraqi army is unable to exercise control along the borders. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chipped in by saying that it would be irresponsible for us not to listen if the Iraqi government requested for the stay of American troops to be prolonged. Under pressure from the Obama administration, the Iraqi cabinet had in early August authorised the government to start negotiations with Washington for an extension of the U.S. presence, albeit in the guise of trainers and contractors.

Iraqi Deputy Vice-President Tareq Hashemi, reflecting the popular mood, said that the continuation of the U.S. military presence would represent a problem, not a solution.

The U.S. occupation had led to the death of more than 1.2 million Iraqis and the displacement of millions more from their homes. According to the International Rescue Committee, the war displaced 4.7 million Iraqis. Half of these refugees live in penury in neighbouring countries. A recent report in Lancet documented 1,003 suicide attacks in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. These resulted in the death of 12, 284 civilians and injuries to 30,644. In late August, 22 worshippers in a Baghdad mosque were killed in a suicide bomb attack. A week before that, 89 Iraqis were killed and 379 injured in a single day, following coordinated terror attacks. U.S. diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks reveal that U.S. soldiers were responsible for the killing of 10 civilians in Tikrit and the cover-up that followed.

After eight years of U.S. occupation, half of Iraq's population does not have access to potable water. These are figures given out by the United Nations. Before that, U.S. sanctions and the first Gulf war had inflicted a great deal of sorrow and strain on the Iraqi people. Most Iraqis feel that only a complete U.S. troops withdrawal can bring about the much-needed healing and reconciliation the country needs. Before the U.S. invasion, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a terror-free country. Now it has become a breeding ground for extremists, who have used their expertise in South and South-East Asia, with devastating effect.

Obama administration officials confidently predict that American troops will be present in Iraq even after the December deadline. The administration claims that the soldiers will remain only to train the Iraqi security forces. Senior U.S. military officials have been saying for some time now that the Iraqi army and police are not adequately prepared to take on security responsibilities on their own. Even if there is a formal withdrawal of the occupation forces, sizable numbers of private contractors and intelligence personnel will be left behind to safeguard U.S. interests and supervise subversive activities against neighbouring Iran.

According to reports in the American media, senior military officials are trying to persuade Obama to authorise increased covert actions against Iran from Iraqi soil. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the Obama administration may start deploying troops secretly in Iraq assigned to operate temporarily under CIA authority. The U.S. announced last year that it would be deploying more than 5,500 military contractors ostensibly to guard American installations. The State Department has also created an Office of Security Cooperation to supervise the training and equipping of the Iraqi armed forces. Meanwhile, the Defence Department is working overtime to strengthen Camp Delta, the big military base it is occupying near Iraq's border with Iran. The military base has a long runway and houses more than 5,000 troops.

The Obama administration has been increasingly making unsubstantiated allegations that Iran is sending weapons to terror groups in Iraq. Iranian officials have dismissed the charges as baseless and said that the U.S. has not produced a single shred of evidence to back up its claims. Teheran has pointed out that it is the job of the U.S. military, which has a strong presence along the border, to stop the smuggling of arms.

Meanwhile, the officials have accused the Americans of smuggling arms into Syria and Lebanon to aid the groups striving to overthrow the governments in Damascus and Beirut. Many of the key players in the Iraqi government, including Maliki, have close links with Teheran, having spent most of their years in exile during the Saddam years in that country. In the first week of September, Iraq and Iran jointly announced the start of many joint economic ventures, including the formation of an investment company. Trade between the two countries is expected to reach $10 billion by the end of the year.

Both sides have expressed optimism that the figure will reach $20 billion in the near future. Syria, too, has joined hands with Iraq and Iran with work starting on an ambitious pipeline project that will carry Iranian gas all the way to the Mediterranean to markets in Europe.

Naturally, the Obama administration is viewing these developments with alarm as it sees its influence in Iraq ebbing dramatically and that of Iran in the region rising.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 07, 2011.)

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