Iraq - The imperialist occupation may end in its present form, the damage it caused will not

Jan/Mar 2010

If the Chilcot enquiry - the so-called "independent" enquiry into the Iraq war - is anything to go by, it would seem that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have already disappeared into the thin air of history.

In fact, this is the main function of this enquiry - to put this bloody war "behind us", by implying that the time has come to investigate its circumstances with "impartiality". All kinds of individuals can be called to the witness box to say things that they failed to say when this would have been useful, but feel safe to say today, knowing this will have no consequences. Or else, they can carry on lying shamelessly, like Alistair Campbell did over Blair's famous "dossier" on Saddam Hussein's WMD. So, by the same token, this enquiry may help to clear some of the bad feelings that Blair's and Brown's policy in Iraq has left among voters, by giving the illusion that the government is willing to make amends. After all, Labour can use a few good marks in the run-up to the coming general election!

Except, of course, that everything in this enquiry is utterly cynical. Its brief is not to investigate the cost for the Iraqi population, of Blair's decision to go to war, whether during the invasion and occupation, or for the years to come. Nor is it to investigate the criminal acts carried out by Western forces, British or otherwise. Its only purpose is to test the war's "legality" in terms of the law of the capitalist class - the law of the big companies in whose interests this war was launched in the first place! Moreover most of the "wise" men and women in the enquiry have held, or are still holding, positions in the high-spheres of the state, close to the army and MoD. Will they disown the ministers under whose brief they served, or the generals with whom they brushed shoulders for so long? Not likely!

The outcome of this enquiry is, therefore, entirely predictable - while some blame may be allocated here and there over secondary issues, the real criminals, that is the politicians who made the important decisions concerning the war, will get away scot free, no doubt in the name of "British national interests".

Whatever may be said at the Chilcot enquiry, however, the occupation of Iraq continues and so does the state of war it creates, while the bill that the Iraqi population is made to pay is still increasing.

Of course, since Obama decided to step up the US offensive in Afghanistan in the aftermath of his election, this country seems to have replaced Iraq at the top of the list of the imperialist battle fields. But this is misleading. Although Obama owed his election, to a large extent, to having promised a rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq during his election campaign, this withdrawal has quickly turned out to be far less rapid than he had suggested in his election speeches.

There is even less question of loosening the US military presence across the region - quite the opposite. In fact, this presence will have been reinforced during the occupation of Iraq, in order to protect even more closely the interests of imperialist companies in general, and those of US companies in particular, against the Iraqi population as well as against the population of the region's other countries.

Withdrawing or settling down permanently?

Obama formally announced his timetable for the US troops' withdrawal in February 2009. In reality, there was nothing much new in this announcement as it was merely a slightly amended version of the State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) already reached the previous year by George Bush and the Iraqi government.

According to this amended SOFA, the 130,000 US troops were meant to withdraw into their compounds and suspend any presence in the cities from 30 June 2009. An "end of combat operations" was meant to occur on 31 August 2010 - which implied that, until then, US troops would still be able, for instance, to launch offensive operations, despite being supposedly instructed to remain inside their bases.

SOFA provided that before this "end of combat operations", troop numbers would be progressively reduced to a "residual force" of between 35 and 50,000 - which was already a far larger figure than that suggested previously by Democratic party spokespersons. In addition, Obama made a point of stressing that, on this issue, the ultimate decision would be left entirely in the hands of the generals in charge of the occupation of Iraq. One must assume that these generals were not all that enthused by a rapid withdrawal, since a report published on 2nd November 2009 by the US Government Accountability Office showed that, in the end, the number of troops in the "residual force" had been set at 50,000.

What will be the exact tasks of these 50,000 men who are no longer supposed to engage in "combat operations", is anybody's guess. In theory, they should be there only to provide logistical and training assistance to the Iraqi forces. But on this as well, the generals will have the last say - including that of deciding that, despite everything, these men should have access to full combat gear and weaponry, just in case!

Finally, SOFA provided that this "residual force" would eventually have left Iraq by 31 December 2011 - that is exactly the date already set by Bush in 2008! So much for Obama's promise of a "rapid" withdrawal. Although SOFA remained far more vague on issues such as what would happen to the US bases and to the contractors employed by the US army, the Defence Department claims that, by that date, all 295 US military bases in Iraq will have been closed down or handed over to the Iraqi army, all the weaponry stockpiled by the US will have been repatriated, decommissioned or transferred to the Iraqi army, and all 115,000 or so US army contractors - mercenaries as well as civilians - will have left the country.

But there is every reason to doubt that this is Obama's real plan. In March, for instance, the US TV channel NBC reported that high-ranking US officers were involved in discussions with the Kurdish provincial authorities (the region located to the north-east of Iraq) over the possibility of maintaining a permanent US air base on their territory. The same TV channel also quoted some of Obama's military advisers predicting the US would retain a military presence in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years and stressing that SOFA could always be renegotiated according to needs.

In fact, even in its present form, SOFA includes provisions which only make sense on the assumption that there are some US army personnel and contractors who remain in Iraq. In particular, SOFA provides that such personnel and contractors will be subject to Iraqi law, but within the framework of adhoc procedures allowing the US police and justice system to "co-operate" with its Iraqi counterparts. Already FBI offices have been set up in Iraq and their agents are busy putting these procedures in place. Why would such procedures need to be defined if the US withdrawal was to be as complete as Obama claims?

Besides, there is no shortage of statements coming both from the US army's top spheres and from Obama's own entourage, which show that, indeed, the US army will maintain a significant presence in Iraq beyond 31 December 2011. It will have "advisers" attached to the Iraqi forces, under the pretext of assisting their training, just as is the case in every one of the countries belonging to the backyard of US imperialism. In addition, since, military experts estimate that the Iraqi army with not be able to have an air force or heavy artillery units of its own before 2015 at least, the US will have to provide it with fully operational units, complete with their weapons and personnel (because, of course, Washington will never have US personnel operating under Iraqi command!). And the colossal bunker built by the US in Bagdad to host its embassy - the world's largest US embassy, which Obama has no intention of dismantling - will conveniently serve as headquarters to coordinate all these forces !

Besides, as Obama's advisers pointed out, there is nothing to stop SOFA from being renegotiated later, to fine-tune some "minor details", such as the establishment of permanent military bases, for instance. Today is not quite the right time to do this, however: neither for Obama, who may not want to uncover his plans for Iraq too early, at a time when he already has to get US public opinion to swallow quite a few bitter pills; nor, above all, for the Iraqi government, which is facing a rather delicate situation, in the run-up to the general election due on March 7th.

In the meantime, even with US troop numbers being significantly reduced in Iraq, the US army will remain a permanent threat for the Iraqi population. Indeed, since the first Gulf war, back in 1991, and even more so since 2001, Washington has poured billions into the neighbouring Gulf emirates, to establish a solid permanent military foothold. Very recently, general Petraeus, the head of CENTCOM, the US central military command, was explaining before a US Senate commission, that: "We are also working towards an integrated air and missile defence network for the Gulf. All of these cooperative efforts are facilitated by the critical base and port facilities that Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others provide for US forces. And the fact is that, in addition to the US fleet which patrols permanently off the coast of the Gulf, each one of these countries hosts US bases - with troops numbers as high as 15,000 in Kuwait and 3,000 in Bahrain, for instance.

The vultures' ball

The occupation in its present form could, therefore, be replaced with a more stable situation, based on a more discreet permanent US presence using the huge Iraqi repressive machinery (there are around 600,000 men in Iraq's army and various police forces). In such a case, efficient policing of the immediate surroundings of the oil fields and the country's main cities, may become a possibility. This is the sort of opening for profiteering that multinational companies have been longing for, for many years.

This was illustrated, for example, by the Trade Fair organised in Baghdad last November, in the midst of an unprecedented flurry of police roadblocks, while an unusual number of US combat helicopters were circling over the city. Over 400 foreign companies crowded in, in the hope of grabbing a share of the Iraqi market.

Even more significant in this respect, were the dozen or so preliminary oil contracts auctioned by the Iraqi government to oil consortiums, since last July.

Up to now, the oil companies have been insisting that any oil deal in Iraq should be solely in the form of "Product Sharing Agreements" (PSA) - that is, contracts in which the oil companies pay fixed royalties to the government, while keeping the oil produced and controlling production levels, so as to enable them to speculate on world oil prices. The occupation authorities had put a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government to introduce legislation in favour of PSA deals. But this very unpopular legislation became such a hot potato in the rivalries between Iraq's political factions that it was never finalised.

The preliminary contracts which have been auctioned since last July are far less lucrative "Service Production Agreements '(SPA), in which the oil companies operate as sub-contractors of the government, managing oil fields and producing oil on its behalf. They undertake to repair existing oil fields, which have fallen into disrepair over the past decade, while oil production fell to very low levels, and to bring back production to a set level by a set deadline. To sign these contracts, the bidders must fork out a "signature bonus" worth between $100m and $150m. Thereafter, the government funds all the repair work and pays a set price for each barrel of oil extracted. So in the case of SPAs, it is the government that gets the oil and controls production levels.

In the end, there was no shortage of bidders. The companies did complain that the "signature bonus" was too high and the price paid per extracted barrel was too low, but they finally bowed to the conditions defined by the Iraqi government. One point worth noting was that out of the 30 or so companies involved, there were only two of the US oil majors (ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum). The two British oil majors (BP and Shell) were duly present. But all the other companies were from countries like France, Italy, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, etc.. which were not involved in the occupation of Iraq.

The truth is that the contract auction process is more symbolic than anything else. First, because, according to the 2005 Constitution, all these contracts need to be endorsed not only by the Iraqi parliament, but also by the assemblies of the concerned provinces - and they may well fail to get this endorsement, not to mention the fact that no-one can be sure about the outcome of the March elections, which may result in a very different balance of forces between the rival political factions. Second, because under the present state of the legislation, all these contracts are totally illegal, since the law provides that only contracts for the development of new oil fields can be awarded to foreign companies, whereas contracts for the management of existing oil fields are supposed to be awarded to Iraqi companies only, in particular to the two existing state oil companies - a legal challenge to these preliminary contracts has already been filed by opposition politicians on this basis. Finally, the implementation of these contracts is still bound to be blocked by intractable security problems in most cases, such as, for instance, the on-going attacks which keep closing down for entire weeks at a time, the pipe-line linking Iraq to Turkey, the only channel for oil exports to the west.

In other words, even if these preliminary contracts are actually signed, the odds are that they will be worth no more than the piece of paper on which they are written. Nevertheless, for companies which are hoping to grab a share of Iraq's oil, taking part in these auctions is probably a way to position themselves in preparation for the day when the really serious business is on the agenda - that is, once advantageous oil legislation is enacted, giving them access to the so far unexploited oil fields they are really targeting, through lucrative Production Sharing Agreements. These companies - which include BP and Shell despite Britain's participation to the war in Iraq - know that, when this time comes, they will have to face the formidable competition of the US oil majors and that, therefore, they had better put their foot in the door, well in advance.

Indeed, if most US majors did not bother to take part in the recent auctions, it is simply because they have no need to position themselves for the future. Figuratively speaking, they are already sitting at the Iraqi oil table, thanks to Washington's political weight in the country and, undoubtedly, thanks to their allies within the top spheres of the Iraqi regime. Moreover, they can also rely on the assistance of former dignitaries in the US occupying authority who recycled themselves into oil businessmen. So, for instance, Jay Garner, former head of the US occupation authority, is now an adviser with Vast Exploration, a Canadian company which is exploiting oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, who used to be US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, has returned to his previous career in the oil industry (he was an advisor with US major Unocal before 2001), by setting up, this time, his own oil consultancy, based in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It may be worth adding, in passing, that, according to The Times Blair has also set up shop as a £1m/yr consultant with a company based in the United Arab Emirates, which is bidding for Iraqi oil in a consortium led by Occidental Petroleum!

A "normalisation" in the inter-faction war?

There have been many statements lately, made by US and British politicians, claiming, with a good deal of cynicism, that the first signs of a "normalisation" were beginning to appear in Iraq. To back up this claim, they quoted, in particular, the fall in the number of casualties among US troops and in the number of attacks aimed at occupation forces. As if this fall could prove anything since, US soldiers are now confined in their bases, so they no longer risk being used as targets by Iraqi armed groups!

By contrast, the same claim is hardly backed up by a parallel fall in terrorist attacks against the Iraqi population. In November 2009, for instance, an article released by Radio Free Europe tried to figure out the evolution of these attacks. It noted that in September 2009, the official number for the Iraqi victims of terrorist attacks had been the lowest since the invasion - the figure quoted was 125, which was considered, therefore, below "normal". However the same article had to correct its very relative "optimism" by adding immediately that the number of victims in October 2009 - which was 343 - was actually higher than in the same month in 2008! In other words, more than ever, the population is paying with its blood for the political chaos created by the occupation.

In reality, there has been a resurgence of suicide attacks since last Summer, in Iraq in general, but more specifically in the capital. But whereas, during the first half of the year, suicide attacks had the same kind of blind, sectarian character as in the previous years, from August onwards, the main attacks, both in terms of the number of victims and in terms of the importance of the military resources involved, followed a different common pattern: they all involved a series of simultaneous, obviously co-ordinated explosions; they all hit Baghdad's "Green zone" (the most heavily protected area of the capital, where the embassies and the main government buildings are located); they all targeted important ministries or their dependencies and they all left between 100 and 150 casualties together with several hundred injured.

Prime minister Maliki's government and the parties which are connected to it were quick to blame these attacks on al-Qaeda, Iran or, in the case of Maliki himself, the Syria-based remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath party (to the point that Iraq even broke off its diplomatic relationship with Syria). But it was clear that everyone was as a loss: the perpetrators had demonstrated their ability to mobilise considerable logistical resources, their aim was clearly to expose the government's incapacity to guarantee the security of its own stronghold in the capital and yet no-one had claimed responsibility for these attacks. In fact, it may well be that Maliki came closest to the truth when, following last the attack which claimed 112 dead, on 15 December 2009, he blamed clandestine groups which had "infiltrated" the ranks of the police.

What seems certain is that those who carried out these attacks were preparing for the March general election in their own way, by trying to destroy the political image that Maliki, whose list of candidates seems best placed to win this election, has built up for himself over the past period. His image is that of a man who assumes the credit for having restored order and imposed the rule of the army and police in the streets of the radical Shia militia's two main strongholds - Basra, the capital of southern Iraq, and Sadr City, Baghdad's sprawling slum, which accounts for a third of the capital's population.

This was, in fact, the result of a series of joint operations by the Iraqi and US army, backed up by Sunni militias known as the "Awakening Councils", who are former members of Sunni armed groups, originally recruited by the US occupation authorities in return for an amnesty and the guarantee of a regular wage. Faced with forces which were far superior in terms of numbers, weaponry and organisation, the radical Shia militia had to melt away into the population and leave the control of the streets to the police.

In the meantime, Maliki's party (Dawa, the second largest Shia party) had left the ruling coalition of Shia parties which won the 2005 election, to form a coalition of its own and stand separate lists in the provincial elections held in January 2009. Thanks to the credit he had gained, by cutting down to size the radical Shia militias, Maliki's coalition swept the poll, coming in first position in 9 of the 14 provinces in which an election was held, including in the country's two most important provinces, those around Basra and Baghdad, where it won a majority of the seats. These elections saw two main losers: on the one hand, ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq), the Shia religious party which had appeared, so far, as the leading Shia political current, lost its position in 8 out of the 11 provinces where it had been in control previously; on the other hand, the two main radical Shia religious currents were completely marginalised (at least they were in the ballot box, but they remain the main political forces on the ground in the poor Shia districts of Baghdad and Basra, particularly among the internally displaced population).

A vulnerable regime

Maliki obviously hoped to replicate this electoral show of strength in next March's general election. He did everything to improve his chances in this respect, in particular by setting up a coalition of parties, known as the "State of Law" coalition, which presents itself as "secular". The word "secular" should not mislead anyone, however. Five of the six main coalitions standing in the March election call themselves "secular", quite simply because using a religious label in politics is being seen by a growing number of voters as a reminder - and an endorsement - of the past bloody confrontations between Shia and Sunni. In reality, however, the "secular" provincial authorities which are dominated by Maliki's coalition have been noted for, among other things, banning women from attending provincial council meetings without a male minder (in the Wasit province, next to the southern border with Iran), closing down shops selling alcohol (in Baghdad), etc..

There is no shortage of factions which could have an interest in trying to destroy Maliki's political image as a "security enforcer" as well as the logistical means to carry out terrorist attacks such as those which took place over the past months.

Among them is ISCI. If it were to lose as much ground in the coming election as it did in the provincial elections, ISCI would stand to lose at the same time its most valuable stronghold - the Interior ministry, which it has occupied since it was propelled into this position by the US authorities, when the first provisional government was formed after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. If this was to happen, ISCI would lose, by the same token, the main source of its influence within the police where many key positions are held by members of its militia, the Badr Brigade.

Another force which has accounts to settle with Maliki, is the militia of the "Awakening Councils". The Iraqi government has not proved very grateful to them for their role as cannon fodder in the 2008 offensives against the radical Shia militia. As soon as the US authorities handed over responsibility for the "Awakening Councils" to Maliki, with the objective of integrating their members into the police, the first measure that the Iraqi government took was to cut their wages by half! To date, only 5% of these militia men have been integrated into the police. Many others have deserted, amidst bitter complaints of being discriminated against when they applied for police jobs. But there still remain 45,000 of them, who are used as auxiliaries by the Iraqi police and army in their most dangerous operations and who are likely to have very strong feelings against Maliki and his regime.

Finally, other possible suspects are the victims of Maliki's military offensives against the radical Shia militia - particularly the radical Shia militia known as the "Mahdi Army", whose policy has been, for a long time already, to create clandestine cells of supporters within the army and police, especially as a means of securing regular supplies of weapons and ammunition, and who would, therefore, have both the motivation and the means to carry out such terrorist attacks in order to weaken Maliki.

But even if Maliki manages to overcome the hurdles of the pre-election period and remain in power after the election, he will still have to face up to powerful centrifugal forces which, for a long time, have played a part in the on-going political chaos - forces which could see an advantage in testing their luck under the present circumstances.

Thus, during the discussion on the regulations governing the coming election, violent tensions resurfaced over the issue of Kirkuk. The Kurdish parties have always demanded that the Kirkuk province should be integrated into north-eastern Kurdish autonomous region. This issue had been tentatively addressed by the 2005 constitution which provided for the organisation of a referendum in the province. But Bagdad has never been willing to take the risk of organising this referendum, no doubt due to the fact that the Kirkuk province has the second largest untapped oil reserves after the Basra area. This oil wealth is also the main reason why the Kurdish nationalists are so vocal in their claim over Kirkuk. So far, the Kurdish autonomous regional government has confined itself to exploiting medium-size oil fields for its own benefit, without sharing the profits with Bagdad. But if the central government starts awarding oil contracts to foreign companies, the Kurdish parties may fear that Kirkuk's oil reserves might go the same way, which would make it a lot more difficult for them to get their hands on this province. This is why they may want to force through the integration of Kirkuk into autonomous Kurdistan as a matter of urgency.

Likewise, and contrary to its main rival Dawa, the Shia party ISCI has always supported the setting up of an autonomous Shia region in the south of Iraq, where most of its base of support is concentrated - an autonomous region which would be the southern counterpart of a northern autonomous Kurdistan and would comprise more than half of Iraq's oil reserves. As long as ISCI held a key position in Bagdad, it had no real incentive to try to whip up the regionalist feelings of the southern Shia. But if ISCI were to lose its key position as a result of the March election, it may change tack in this respect - thereby creating another factor of instability for the Iraqi regime.

The open wounds of the occupation

While visiting Baghdad in the aftermath of the 2008 offensive against the radical Shia militia, US journalist Nir Rosen - who has always expressed his opposition to the western occupation of Iraq - gave a snapshot of the life of the population, which speaks for itself. This is an extract of his article, published in The National a daily paper based in the United Arab Emirates:

"There are fewer people dying today because there are fewer left to kill; Sunnis and Shia now inhabit separate walled enclaves, run by warlords and militias who have consolidated their control after mixed neighbourhoods were cleansed along sectarian lines. Since April 2007, American forces have erected a series of concrete walls and checkpoints throughout the city to divide warring Sunnis and Shiites. Though these walls helped dampen sectarian violence, they may have bolstered sectarianism, isolating Iraqis from their neighbours and leaving them dependent on militias like the Mahdi Army for food, supplies and protection (..). in central Baghdad, the majority-Shia Washash neighbourhood sits in squalor right next to the upscale Mansour district, where wealthy Baghdadis once packed stores and restaurants until sectarian fighting closed stores and drove pedestrians off the streets. The unpaved streets of Washash are flooded with filth, and electric cables hang low from rooftops, cris-crossing like old cobwebs. The Mahdi Army men in Washash - who are notorious, even among the Sadrists, for their brutality - used the neighbourhood as a staging point for attacks against Sunni militants and forays into Mansour, and the neighbourhood was among the first Shiite enclaves to be surrounded by concrete walls; there is only one entrance for cars, guarded by Iraqi soldiers. Elsewhere a few narrow openings in the concrete blocks allow pedestrians to squeeze through, one at a time. Almost all of the Sunnis who once lived in Washash were forced out or killed by the Mahdi Army.

The cleansing of these districts of Baghdad by Maliki's offensive may have restored the rule of the law, by imposing a permanent police presence which is forcing the radical Shia militia to act more discreetly. But it did not bring the brutality of the militia to an end - nor that of the police, which is notorious, nor the rule of the gangs. And, of course, it has done nothing to reduce the deep communal resentment born out of the militia's past violence - quite the opposite, in fact.

As to the material conditions faced by the population, they have not improved much either. Nearly a third of all men under 30 have no access to any form of paid employment, not even to the most casual or informal types of work. 55% have no access to clean water and 80% of the population has still no access to proper sewage systems.

Neither the occupation forces nor the Iraqi government, has done anything to meet the most urgent needs of the population. Corruption is so prevalent among the Iraqi institutions that what funds are allocated for public investment, repair or maintenance, are largely sponged off by layer upon layer of parasites. It is not for nothing that, according to the corruption index published by the NGO "Transparency International", Iraq was ranked in 178th position among the world's countries (out of 180) in 2008 and in 176th position in 2009!

Not only does the Iraqi regime leave the population in abject poverty, but its bankruptcy feeds the influence of the sectarian militia. Says Nir Rosen about Washash, "for the Iraqis there, there is essentially no state; they are dependent on the Sadrists[Mahdi Army] for sustenance and security, which the central government cannot provide. More generally, adds Rosen, "before the war, 80% of Iraqis depended on the Public Distribution System, an efficient ration system established in 1996 that provided essential items for all Iraqi families. But the system has now stopped functioning because of security problems, corruption and sectarianism. Most families do not even receive 50% of what they used to, and displaced Iraqis, especially Sunnis, receive nothing at all. In the meantime, the Sadrist movement has become Iraq's largest humanitarian organisation.

The past communal violence combined with the destruction of the occupation and the increasing poverty they caused, are estimated to have resulted in the internal displacement of 2.7 million people while another 2 million fled into exile abroad - meaning that 15% of the population became refugees. Out of these refugees, only 300,000 have chosen to return home so far. This is to say that, for a significant part of the population, the situation remains just as intolerable today, and with no sign of any "normalisation" on the horizon!

To sum up, the withdrawal of the US troops, if and when it happens, will not, in and of itself, wipe out the catastrophic consequences for the population, of the West's criminal invasion and occupation of the country. As to the more or less open civil war it precipitated, it will not disappear either. In every respect - material, social and political - the invasion has thrust the country back, decades into the past. And the host of rival factions - all equally reactionary, bigoted and corrupted - which were brought into existence by the western invasion and, in some cases, promoted to political power by the western governments, they have nothing to offer the population.