IRAQ has witnessed quite a few important developments in recent months. The coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikis Dawa Party has emerged as the strongest group after the provincial elections in February. The grouping won in nine of the 18 provinces, including Baghdad, which has a population of six million. The results also showed that Moqtada al Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, who has been keeping a low profile since his Mahdi militia was put down in major Iraqi cities with American and British military support, is no longer the political force he once was. Even in his stronghold of Sadr city, a Baghdad suburb with a population of more than two million, his support base is shrinking.
The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which until recently was the most powerful Shia party in the country, came a cropper in the provincial elections. The party is a votary of federalism as opposed to the Dawa Party, which has started advocating strong centralised rule from Baghdad. The virtually autonomous Kurdish-dominated north refused to participate in the provincial polls on the grounds that they would dilute the considerable power it has enjoyed since the first Gulf war. The good showing of parties advocating strong central rule and unity of the country has not gone down well with those advocating a separate Kurdish homeland in the north.
In the last week of February, immediately after the election results were out, President Barack Obama finally announced the blueprint for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in keeping with his campaign promise. But most Iraqis as well as many Americans are dissatisfied with the time frame involved in the withdrawal and the number of troops Obama wants to keep in Iraq. Many Americans had voted for Obama believing that he would order a speedy withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The President, however, seems to have gone by the advice of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush presidency, and senior Pentagon officials such as CENTCOM (United States Central Command) commander Gen. David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.
According to the Obama plan, up to 50,000 U.S. troops will stay on in Iraq beyond 2010 to protect the ongoing civilian and military efforts in the country. The troops that will remain behind are being characterised as non-combatants though they are regular combat troops. Besides, a 100,000-strong army of mercenaries and contractors will continue to have a free hand in Iraq. Retired General Barry McCaffrey, in an internal report for the Pentagon last year, had predicted that the Iraqi government would eventually ask for U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. Many observers fear that the reduction of American ground troops will be balanced by an increase in American air power over Iraq.
John McCain, Obamas Republican rival in last years presidential polls, was among those who welcomed the decision to continue deploying troops in Iraq beyond the 16-month period Obama had promised. McCains hawkish views on Iraq, according to many analysts, were among the main reasons why he lost the elections. Obama, after taking over the presidency, seems to be backtracking on most of the promises he made on Iraq. He has now made it clear that officials responsible for the illegal war in Iraq and the torture, assassinations and illegal detentions that followed will not be prosecuted. The theft of over $50 billion of U.S. funds meant for the reconstruction of Iraq is also not being seriously investigated.
Both the government and the opposition parties in Iraq had protested against the Bush administrations plan to prolong the occupation of Iraq. Last year, the Bush administration had resorted to arm-twisting the Maliki government to push through a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allows a limited number of U.S. troops to stay on in Iraq until 2011. But owing to widespread protests in Iraq, SOFA will be put to a referendum next year. SOFA, in all likelihood, is going to be rejected by the Iraqi people. In that event, the U.S. will, in theory, have to withdraw all its troops post-haste from Iraq.
But Prime Minister Malikis top aides have apparently told Washington that they want the U.S. troops to stay much longer at least until the Iraqi armed forces are able to maintain internal security. The victory in the provincial polls has made Maliki the front-runner in the national elections, which in all probability will be held in 2010. Though the elections were scheduled for December this year, it is likely to be postponed as an electoral law to govern the conduct of elections is still not in place. U.S. troops will be needed to ensure that Washingtons favourite candidate wins and also to keep out of the electoral fray parties that are opposed to the occupation, such as the Baath Party.
Then there is the Kurdish problem, which threatens to spin out of control. The Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, which has become the loyal surrogate of the U.S. in the region, is for a permanent troop presence in Iraq. It is an insurance policy for these leaders as both Shia and Sunni parties are united in their efforts to ensure that Iraq is not partitioned and that Baghdad retains control over the vast oil resources in the north. The fighting over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is being claimed by the Kurds, has escalated in recent months.
In the words of the West Asia expert Professor Juan Cole, it is a crisis waiting to happen. The Iraqi Kurds are investing a lot of hope in President Obamas promise of a responsible withdrawal from Iraq. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has expressed the hope that the U.S. will leave Iraq only after resolving the contentious issues that have distanced the Kurds from other ethnic and denominational groups in the country. He specifically mentioned Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution and issues relating to the distribution of the bountiful oil wealth in the north. Article 140 refers to the territorial disputes centering around Kirkuk and other towns. Kurdish officials have been repeatedly demanding that Obama appoint a special envoy to resolve their long-standing disputes with the rest of Iraq.
Washington will, of course, use the various crises erupting in the country as a pretext to prolong the stay of the U.S. forces. The Pentagon has anyway planned for a long haul in Iraq. The biggest U.S. embassy in the world, the size of a city state, is being built inside the green zone in Baghdad. This, along with 50 military bases in Iraq, illustrates the U.S. commitment.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, had spoken about the need for permanent basing facilities in Iraq. She had endorsed the Pentagons plan for a permanent air base in Kirkuk. The American media have reported that the U.S. military establishment wants to stay on in Iraq for another 10 to 15 years. The U.S. military is currently working overtime to expand the existing bases with longer runways that can handle heavy bombers and transport planes. The U.S. already has a string of bases in the region in states such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.
It is obvious from Obamas latest pronouncements that Washington still hopes to retain Iraq as a military and political protectorate. Iraq, after all, is the second biggest producer of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia. Rafidan, the political committee speaking for a number of Iraqi resistance groups, issued a statement condemning Obamas February speech. The Iraqi people are disappointed in your plan. They expect your troops to leave our country in full and not in part, the statement said. There is no such thing as friendly occupation, the statement went on to add. It asked the U.S. President to vacate Iraq at a time suitable for our people and not suitable for your agents in the green zone.
Meanwhile, the suffering of the Iraqi people shows no signs of abating. After the Obama announcement on Iraq, there were suicide bombings in Mosul, Diyala and Baghdad, causing a lot of casualties. The condition of the refugee population, numbering more than 4.5 million, remains unchanged. One in every six Iraqi citizen is now a refugee. According to a UNICEF (United Nations Childrens Fund) report, only 5 per cent returned to their homes though 2008 was comparatively the least violent year since the American occupation began. Seventy per cent of the children in Baghdad are not able to attend school, and 40 per cent of households in Iraq have no access to clean water.
Most independent surveys have concluded that more than a million Iraqis lost their lives in the past six years under the American occupation. Iraqi officials have said that there are between one million and two million war widows and five million orphans. War widows clad in black begging for alms on the roads of Baghdad is a common sight now. A large number of Iraqi children are now affected with post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Dr. Haithi al Saidi, Dean of the Psychological Research Centre at Baghdad University, 28 per cent of Baghdads children suffer from some degree of PTSD. The statistics that are coming out make grim reading. As a result of an unjust war, one out of every two Iraqi has been affected in some way or the other.
But the Maliki governments priorities appear to be different. In the second week of March, a Baghdad court sentenced Muntadhar al Zaidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush in December last year, to three years in prison. Muntadhar, who is now a household name in the Arab world, had refused to apologise for his act. He told the judge who gave the verdict that his reaction was a natural response to the occupation. Muntadhar was tortured while awaiting trial. His family members said that they would not only appeal but would also file torture charges against Bush and Maliki in a human rights court outside Iraq.
Muntadhars chief defence lawyer, Ehiya al Sadi, said that his clients goal had been to insult Bush for the pain Iraqis have suffered. Khalil al Dulaimi, who was Saddam Husseins defence lawyer, has formed a team of 200 lawyers, including Americans, to fight for Muntadhars release. Our defence will be based on the fact that the U.S. is occupying Iraq, and resistance is legitimate by all means, including shoes, Dulaimi told the Iraqi media.