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Washington's Wars and Occupations:

Month in Review #30

October 26, 2007

By Max Elbaum, War Times/Tiempo de Guerras




These days even pro-war figures admit that things in Iraq are messy and difficult. Gone are slogans like "Mission Accomplished" and pronouncements that "we'll be greeted as liberators" and "we'll create a model pro-Western democracy in the Middle East."


Instead, the people who spread those fantasies (and baited dissenters as "helping the terrorists") have retreated to Argument B: Yes, things are bad over there, they concede. And maybe Bush administration mistakes are partly to blame. But the real problem is failure, incompetence and "age-old hatred" among Iraqis themselves. Things will be even worse if the U.S. gets out: right now it's only our military presence that's standing between Iraq and genocidal civil war. Further, an "irresponsible" withdrawal will give heart to terrorism worldwide and threaten the security of people at home.


These fallback arguments are aimed especially at the millions in this country for whom Iraq has become a center-stage issue only in the recent past. It is crafted to appeal to a wide political spectrum: People who only questioned the war when the U.S. stopped "winning"; others who are sympathetic to Iraqi hardships but don't follow events there closely; still others who may be intensely critical of Bush and the war but believe that at bottom the U.S. is a force for good with the capacity to solve problems in other countries.      


All these constituencies can be convinced that the best course for both Iraqis and the U.S. people is for the U.S. to withdraw immediately and totally. But this will require patient, respectful arguments. In addition to protest, mobilization and direct action, we must be prepared to reargue our case for withdrawal again and again.  (For information about this weekend's urgent protests in 11 cities, go to )




It is an agonizing time for all people of conscience in this country. We are appalled by the horrific events occurring in Iraq each day, and inevitably fearful about what may happen tomorrow. There are no guarantees. None of us can predict the future with certainty.  

But we do have a guide to help us make our best estimate of future possibilities: the four-year track record of the U.S invasion and occupation. This record provides overwhelming evidence that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is a central feature of the disaster there rather than part of a solution. Take a few news reports from the last few weeks as examples: 

*Revelations that U.S. snipers regularly set "bait" for Iraqis, leaving an item on the ground and then shooting to kill anyone who stops to pick it up - man, woman or child. 

*Stories about U.S.-employed "security contractors" - unaccountable to any law whatsoever - opening fire and killing Iraqi civilians without provocation. 

*Heightened use of air power - including in densely populated Sadr City - with dozens of civilians killed as a result.  

Add these to the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and the grim statistics accumulated over the last four years: Up to one million Iraqis killed. Almost four million forced to flee from their homes, half to neighboring countries and half displaced within Iraq. Reconstruction projects all behind schedule and mired in corruption while U.S. firms such as Halliburton and DynCorp make millions.  

There's nothing in that track record showing that the U.S. occupation prevents violence in Iraq or fosters respectful treatment of the Iraqi people. To the contrary: everything indicates that Washington's presence is a source of violence and brutality.



The majority of Iraqis themselves have reached exactly that conclusion. As early as August 2003, just five months after the invasion, a Zogby poll showed two-thirds of Iraqis wanted U.S. and British troops to leave within a year. Two years later, two-thirds of Iraqis wanted foreign troops out either immediately or as soon as the new Iraqi "sovereign" government was established. The latest BBC/ABC poll - taken months after the start of the U.S. "surge" - shows that big majorities think the surge has worsened the security situation and reduced opportunities for dialogue across sectarian lines. Now nearly 50% of Iraqis want immediate withdrawal and more than ever before - 57% - say that violence against U.S. troops is acceptable. 


Since Iraq belongs after all to the Iraqi people themselves, it would seem only fair - as well as sensible - to heed their opinion. Unfortunately, the U.S. people are bombarded day after day with propaganda that demeans the intelligence and humanity of Iraqis and hypes the notion that "America knows best." But Iraq is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and it is a terrible mistake to underestimate the sophistication of Iraqi political actors and the Iraqi environment. True, by causing so much destruction and spurring the exodus of a high percentage of Iraq's educated classes the U.S. has probably reduced that sophistication (at least in forms of politics that U.S. people recognize). But as a Jordanian who worked for the U.S. Embassy recently told a delegation of U.S. visitors, "I believe the U.S. must leave completely. Iraq will have a difficult and bloody rebirth; it may take 10 or 15 years. But Iraq has enough heritage to recover, to stand on its own two feet. There is no other way."




But isn't it true that Iraqis are now engaged in a bitter sectarian war? Aren't Sunni insurgents and Shia death squads both killing civilians? Don't many Iraqis of both forms of Islam now look to the U.S. for protection?  Here the elements of truth need to be carefully separated from the mountains of distortion.

There is a sectarian civil war underway in Iraq. Many of the organized forces involved have reactionary social agendas that offer nothing positive to the Iraqi people as a whole. And it is true that in some specific instances, U.S. troops have prevented specific killings or massacres from taking place. No doubt many U.S. soldiers and officers sincerely see this as a key part of their mission.

But the majority of Iraqis on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide want the U.S. out because they recognize that fundamentally foreign occupation drives sectarian conflict and fosters the growth of the most reactionary elements. It doesn't heal divisions or promote democracy.   

The current civil war is not the result of "age-old hatred" between Shia and Sunni, who have lived peacefully in mixed neighborhoods (and religiously mixed families) for centuries. Rather, it is the result of 20th century relations or power and privilege, all shaped by Western colonialism with its divide-and-conquer tactics. After 2003, Sunni-Shia violence was fueled by the decision of the U.S. "Provisional Authority" to set up its client government on a sectarian basis; by U.S. collective punishment of entire Sunni cities (such as Fallujah) for the insurgent activities of initially small groups; and by the U.S. training and supplying Shia death squads in its initial attempts to crush the mostly Sunni insurgency. More recently, the barrage of U.S. propaganda against Iran - Washington raising the danger of a "dangerous Shi'ite crescent" even while backing a mostly-Shi'ite and sympathetic-to-Iran government in Baghdad - has compounded the problem. And as long as Washington backs its client regime no matter what, the political figures who lead that regime have no incentive to compromise with their political opponents. 

Even with Washington behaving this way, the majority of Iraqis call for national reconciliation. And in contrast to administration distortions, the vast majority of armed attacks in Iraq are against U.S. troops or their Iraqi collaborators, not against Iraqi civilians (though these are often the most publicized and spectacular).

One can perhaps imagine in the abstract an international force that - if it had the support and active cooperation of most Iraqis - could help suppress the sectarian violence spawned by invasion and occupation. But the U.S. military - the invading, occupying and day-to-day repressive power - is not that force. The U.S. could not play such a role even if its Commander-in-Chief were more concerned about Iraqi lives than about U.S. control of Middle East oil. The bottom line was well expressed in the most recent New Yorker (Oct. 22), where author Lawrence Wright captured the reality perceived BY IRAQIS rather than the make-believe view from the U.S.: "The presence of American troops is itself a goad to insurgency and an impediment to the creation of legitimate civil authority. As long as we remain in Iraq, the Iraqi people will feel themselves to be subjugated by a foreign power."



What about the argument that the U.S. presence in Iraq is necessary for "regional stability?"

The very opposite is true. The close-to-two-million Iraqi refugees bring tremendous economic and political strains to neighboring countries. The occupation-driven civil war spreads Sunni-Shia tensions across Iraqi borders. U.S. troops occupying an Arab country fuel anti-U.S. sentiment in a region where it is already at record highs. Frustrations with the actions of northern-Iraq-based Kurdish rebels conducting armed actions in Turkey and Iran threatens to spread war to those countries.

And with each day U.S. troops stay in Iraq the Bush administration ramps up its latest rationalization for war against Iran: the accusation that Iran is responsible for the death of U.S. soldiers there.

Washington's desperation to stay in Iraq reinforces every backward aspect of its policy region-wide. To make sure massive anti-occupation sentiment among Arab populations does not influence (or overthrow) pro-U.S. governments, Washington ups its aid to police-state governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere. To head off a friendly Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan relationship that might lead to regional cooperation outside of U.S. control (like what's happening in Latin America), Washington fans Sunni-Shia tensions. All on top of Bush's blank-check for Israel, whose occupation of Palestinian land has long been at the pivot of Arab and Muslim vs. U.S. conflict.



For all these reasons, immediate U.S. withdrawal is an absolutely necessary condition for Iraq to move toward peace and self-determination. But it is not sufficient. In the wake of its invasion and occupation, the U.S. does have a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people. How can this country best fulfill that responsibility? By committing itself to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq under Iraqi control, and by supporting regional diplomatic efforts to bring peace and development to the Middle East. Even better would be a larger turnabout in U.S. policy, replacing reliance on military force and support for repressive regimes with diplomacy, backing for self-determination and respect for international law (especially concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict).


Much damage has been done. Even if Washington agreed to all those demands tomorrow the Iraqi people would have many difficult days ahead. There are no guarantees. But only if the U.S. takes this kind of approach can the voices in Iraqi society that speak for nonviolence, reconciliation and development be heard. Only such a course allows Iraqis the chance of a decent future. Every day that the U.S. as a foreign occupier continues to abuse and kill Iraqis, and inevitably sparks violent resistance, digs us all in deeper. Each day brings more Iraqi and U.S. casualties, increases the chances of regional war, and simultaneously strengthens every pro-torture, anti-civil liberties, racist and militarist force in U.S. political life. 


For all these reasons, this is the time to say more loudly than ever: "Out Now!" 




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