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Permanent occupation?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 April 2003

If the prime intention were to ensure a completely independent and democratic Iraq, then the signs would include the early and substantial involvement of the UN and other intergovernmental organisations in reconstruction and in the democratic transition, the rapid withdrawal of military forces and their replacement by an international stabilisation force, and the absence of any intention to maintain a long-term US military presence in the country (see last week’s column).

The early indications are that none of this will happen. Instead, all the immediate signs point to long-term US control. Notably, the search for chemical and biological weapons has been taken out of the hands of the UN inspectors, even though the UN mandate is still in force. It is possible that UNMOVIC might be allowed a verifying role, but it is clear that the actual search for chemical and biological weapons is under strict US control, even if it means that any discoveries will be judged by many across the region to be fabricated.

New US military bases

A more significant development is the remarkable speed with which the issue of permanent US bases in Iraq has come to the fore. Press reports, particularly in the New York Times, suggest four bases are to be established. One is likely to be at Bashur in the Kurdish north of Iraq, another at Tallil near Nasiriya in the south. These two centres will be based on existing Iraqi airfields and will be close to the major northern and southern oil fields. As expected, a third base will be established close to Baghdad itself, probably at the international airport, which has already been mooted as the logistical and command centre for the current US occupying forces.

The surprise has been the report of a fourth planned base at the H1 airfield in the west of Iraq, towards the Syrian border. In its way, though, this should hardly come as a surprise. There are thought to be further large reserves of oil to be discovered in western desert. Furthermore, the H1 base would lie on the route of the old oil pipeline that, prior to 1948, used to run from the northern oil fields of Iraq across the western desert, through Jordan and on through the old Palestine mandate territory to a terminal at Haifa in what is now Israel.

According to a credible report in The Observer, Washington and Jerusalem are drawing up plans to redevelop this pipeline as a major new route for Iraqi oil through to the Mediterranean, under American and Israeli control and with Jordanian acquiescence. This would serve two purposes. First, it would provide the US with an alternative route for oil imports avoiding the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf. Second, it would provide its close ally Israel with a secure long-term source of oil.

After the reports, there were immediate denials from Washington, not least because of the growth of opposition to US occupation that has been developing in Iraq far faster than was expected.

It may be that these bases will not prove to be the huge facilities such as those in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The form there has been for substantial air bases with up to 5,000 personnel, or major logistical bases storing equipment for ground forces that could be deployed rapidly to the region. This may be what happens in Iraq, or the bases may be smaller but allowing ample scope for rapid re-enforcement. The process could even be accompanied by a certain scaling down of military forces in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

At the same time, the picture that is beginning to emerge is of a much more pervasive US presence across the Middle East, South West and Central Asia and the Horn of Africa, and an increased involvement in south east Europe.

The major new developments of the past couple of years have been the basing arrangements in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Djibouti, agreement to having US forces in Pakistan, a small but significant US military presence in Georgia and Kazakhstan, a major base in former Yugoslavia and base facilities in Bulgaria. All this is on top of long-established and substantial bases in western Gulf States from Kuwait right down to Oman, together with the large air base and logistics facility further south at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

It all adds up to a major military investment in two regions – the Persian Gulf (or South West Asia) and Central Asia around the Caspian Basin – that are the primary and secondary regions of the world for new oil exploration and development.

Caspian Basin oil is certainly significant. But the total reserves there are probably barely one-tenth of those of the Persian Gulf, and it is there that the real US focus is concentrated. Iraq is the world’s second largest repository for oil reserves. While Saudi Arabia remains way out in front, there are serious doubts in Washington over its stability and also concerns over the degree of domestic support for anti-American actions such as those of 11 September 2001.

On this basis, the successful destruction of Saddam’s regime and the subsequent occupation of Iraq by US forces should be a great victory for the neo-conservative security agenda, safeguarding a key country and giving leverage on two other parts of the axis of evil – Iran and Syria.

Dangers ahead

Why, then, is the US presence in Iraq already looking tarnished and potentially unstable? US forces have been made welcome in Kurdish areas. In other parts of Iraq the reception has been, at best, much less enthusiastic. Many Sunni Arabs have been sullen if not oppositional, and the speed of development of a strident political voice by Shi’ite communities in much of the south of Iraq is said to have been a shock to US military and political planners.

The reasons are many. There is, for a start, the mistaken idea that destroying an unpopular regime is a recipe for friendship. It is mistaken not least because many Iraqis simply do not believe that the United States is in the business of allowing the development of a genuinely independent and democratic Iraq to replace the old regime. The suspicion stems partly from the recent disorder but much more from a recognition that the underlying reason for the US intervention has much more to do with control of oil reserves, not least because the United States was, in the past, closely allied to the Saddam Hussein regime.

It also relates to the numbers of people killed and injured in the war. Civilian deaths are now recorded at over 2,000 – see www.iraqbodycount.net – with thousands of injuries, as well as tens of thousands of soldiers killed or injured. Hundreds of thousands of people across Iraq will be related to, or friends of, people killed or injured by the putative liberators.

Further, the awarding of reconstruction contracts almost exclusively to US companies, may cause resentment. The work is likely to be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. To put it crudely, Iraq seems likely to end up subsidising American companies to repair damage done by American forces in the war – hardly the behaviour of a welcome liberator, much more that of a determined occupier.

Such views may not be entirely fair – Iraqis subcontractors and workers on the ground may be employed to do much of the work – but they are not too easy to counter. In any case, the reality is that the US destruction of the regime and subsequent occupation of Iraq is simply not getting the welcome and support from the population as a whole that was confidently expected in Washington.

Most worryingly for US planners, demands for the establishment of an Islamic regime are coming from numerous people representing the majority religious identity in the country, an identity shared by most Iranians.

This is not to say that Iran intends any direct interference in Iraq, but it has itself been labelled a key player in the axis of evil and will be unlikely to refrain from informal support for the Shi’ite communities so closely connected to it across the open border.

In the United States, the majority opinion sees the Iraq war of 2003 as another great victory. Wiser counsels are more cautious. Controlling the political development of Iraq in a manner that ensures a compliant regime is not going to be nearly as easy as was expected, and this is before one takes into account the wider regional implications of a foreign state, allied to Israel, occupying a major Arab state. When we factor in the likely impact of that on the support for al-Qaida and other radical paramilitary movements, the Iraq war may already have the makings of a deeply hollow victory.

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