The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal

Zaid Al-Ali
19 January 2007

The explosion at Mustansiriyah University that killed more than seventy people on 16 January 2007 sent a clear message: no one is safe in today's Iraq. The Iraqi government has reacted to the atrocity in a typically lethargic and dishonest manner, offering empty promises of swift justice and increased security. Meanwhile, very few observers remain hopeful that the escalation that the George W Bush administration announced on 10 January - involving the deployment of around 21,500 additional United States troops in Iraq - will improve the desperate current situation.

It is time for policymakers in the US to face up to the fact that the US occupation will never be able to achieve victory in Iraq, no matter how that goal is defined and what pattern of behaviour it entails.

This article argues that there is a clear and ineluctable causal link between the mere presence of the occupation authorities and the failure to reestablish law and order in the country. The only viable course of action is therefore that the US army should withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. The article ends by offering some suggestions as to what measures can be taken to ensure that the country's post-occupation phase will be as peaceful and successful as possible.

Also in openDemocracy on Iraq's travails:

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation"
(7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment"
(8 December 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Bush's surge, Iraq's insurgency" (11 January 2007)

Reidar Visser, "Washington's Iraqi "surge": where are the Iraqis? "
(12 January 2007)

A failure of reconstruction

The prerequisite to recommending a specific course of action is to offer an honest diagnosis of what has happened in Iraq since March-April 2003. Fortunately, most commentators now agree that the US occupation of Iraq, after apparent military success in the war that preceded it, got off to a very bad start. By virtue of a series of misguided administrative decisions - including the dissolution of the Iraqi army and blanket de-Ba'athification - the occupation authorities managed to destroy the Iraqi state in one fell swoop. One of the consequences of these blunders is that the US created enough space for armed groups of all kinds to mushroom across Iraq within a short period.

But this is only one part of the story. The combined effect of the US's policies in 2003 was the dismantling of the entire Iraqi state. The effect of everything that has happened since then, however, is even more disturbing. Despite all the efforts that have been made and all the monies that have been squandered, the US has clearly failed in the most important task that it had set itself: to put the pieces back together and rebuild a functioning state in Iraq.

Baghdad is now but a shadow of its former self, resembling Mogadishu more than anything else. In many areas of the country, the state is completely absent. Where the state does make its presence felt, the services that it provides have continued to deteriorate since 2003 - as if there is a cancer eating away at the heart of the state itself. The Bush administration often cites the December 2005 parliamentary elections and the drafting of the new constitution as positive developments, but they at best represent a distraction. A combination of reasons is often cited - sabotage, insurgency, corruption - to explain the failure to reconstruct the state, but the cause is more fundamental: it can be found in the nature of the occupation itself.

Whenever a society is occupied, the way in which it will interact with the occupying forces will be determined by a number of different factors. For example, it should be obvious that no occupation comes into existence in a historical vacuum. Indeed, the factual context in which an occupation comes into existence will have a major effect on the way the occupied society will react.

In that sense, the fact that the US occupation of Japan took place after one of the most violent wars in human history and after the use of overwhelming force against the occupied country was one of the major reasons why there was no post-war Japanese resistance to speak of (see John Dower, "A warning from history", Boston Review, February/March 2003). By contrast, the circumstances leading up to the American occupation of Vietnam led the people of that country to assume that the US was intending to replace France as a colonial power.

In that context, it is surprising how little attention observers, commentators and policymakers alike have paid to the incredibly sordid history of involvement in Iraq prior to its occupation of that country. The US has been involved in internal Iraqi affairs in different ways for at least half a century, and the more involved it has become the more disastrous the results for ordinary Iraqis. The details are often difficult to face up to, considering that we are talking about what should be the world's most important exporter of democracy and prosperity. From the start however, the US policy in relation to Iraq has been characterised by blind self-interest, inhumanity and racism.

A sordid history

Although it first became involved in Iraqi affairs through covert operations in the late 1950s, the US made its interests in the country abundantly clear during the Iraq-Iran war, when it offered billions of dollars in agricultural credits to the Iraqi regime, which was then able to divert monies to fund its costly war effort (1980-88) against Iran.

The US also provided Iraqi generals with military support during the war. On a number of occasions it supplied them with advance warning of Iranian troop movements in order to facilitate the Iraqi war effort. This was done despite the fact that the Reagan administration was already aware at that point that the Iraqis were preparing to use chemical weapons on the battlefield, which is somewhat problematic considering the US's insistence that the rules of war should be respected at all times.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US seized on the opportunity to launch a full-scale war against the Iraqi people. Hussein was given five months to withdraw, and during that time, thirty countries, led by the US, massed their armies along the Saudi-Iraqi border and in the Gulf.

In one of the negotiation sessions, James A Baker made the notorious announcement to Tariq Aziz that Iraq was going to be "bombed in the stone age". That is exactly what happened. In violation of just about every rule of war imaginable, the US and its allies destroyed every piece of infrastructure, every industrial plant, and every governmental institution within their reach, whether civilian or not. Within a few weeks, the Iraqi economy was utterly devastated - the US managed to knock Iraq, which had previously been considered a middle-income economy, back into third-world status.

To make matters worse, and in complete contempt for the people that it supposedly cared so much for, the US military for the first time used depleted uranium (DU), a type of nuclear waste, in its munitions. DU is one of the heaviest substances known to man, and it was used in order to increase the efficiency of anti-tank shells.

Southern Iraq was the main battlefield during the course of the war and it bore witness to a number of massacres: thousands of Iraqi tanks were laid to waste with DU munitions, even as they withdrew from Kuwait. The effect is that a vast swathe of southern Iraq has been transformed into a toxic wasteland. Its land and water will be contaminated for many thousands of years.

In the meantime, cancer rates and the number of malformed births amongst the already poor and downtrodden indigenous people of that area have skyrocketed. Prior to 2003, US officials dismissed the appeals by local Iraqi doctors as Ba'athist propaganda; the fact that these same doctors have continued their campaign against DU in the post-Ba'athist era has apparently left officials in the US unimpressed (see Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: the lost generation", 7 November 2004).

The next chapter of US-Iraqi relations proved even more deadly for the Iraqi people. After the initial invasion of Kuwait took place in August 1990, the United Nations Security Council imposed the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever devised on Iraq in order to coerce it to withdraw from the country. The rules of the sanctions regime were simple: Iraq could not import or export anything for whatever reason. The effect on Iraq's economy - which was heavily dependent on food imports and on revenues generated by its oil industry - was devastating.

After the war, the sanctions were maintained in order to encourage the Iraqi state to destroy its arsenal of non-conventional weapons. Iraq did this within months and - contrary to allegations by US officials - Iraq's non-conventional weapons programmes were never reconstructed. Nevertheless, the US decided that the sanctions should be maintained at all costs, regardless of the price that the Iraqi people would have to pay. It therefore blocked all efforts by the international community to have the sanctions lifted.

It was clear from the start of the sanctions regime that it was utterly inhuman and could not continue without causing the death of hundreds of thousands of poor Iraqis. But that is precisely what happened: after the 1991 war, poverty rates continued to increase at incredible rates, and an increasing number of Iraqis were dying from preventable diseases because of a lack of access to basic medicines.

After a significant amount of pressure, the US acquiesced in the creation of the oil-for-food programme. This mechanism was in theory designed to alleviate the suffering of poor Iraqis, but in fact just prolonged their misery. It allowed the Iraqi government to sell a limited amount of oil in order to purchase basic necessities for its population.

These limits were set according to what was calculated to be the minimum amount that each Iraqi required to survive. After it was discovered that Iraqis were still starving despite the program, the limit on the sale of oil was doubled. Then it was found that this still meant that UN sniffer-dogs were better fed than the average Iraqi, and the limit was lifted altogether. But the decision came years too late for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished as a result of the hardships imposed on them. Each time, the US was the one to set the limits of the programme.

The latest chapter in the story of US-Iraqi relations started in 2003, when the US launched its unprovoked and unjustified attack on Iraq. It is now commonly accepted that the occupation that followed has served to bring yet new miseries to the most vulnerable Iraqis.

A state of corruption

Most people living in the west tend to forget this history as they were never directly affected by it. Iraqis however are acutely aware of the way that they have been violently oppressed with the connivance, complicity, or direct exercise of power by successive US administrations. In light of this knowledge, and given the context that Iraqis are living through, it is worth considering what type of person would accept to collaborate with the occupation forces in Iraq. It was clear from the start, and the way the situation has played out in practice has proven beyond any shred of a doubt, that the Iraqi government is populated by officials who are morally corrupt.

It is commonly accepted that what was left of Iraq in 2003 has now fallen apart, but insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that one of the main culprits behind this state of affairs is the Iraqi government itself. Most analysts, most notably the Iraq Study Group, have accepted the superficial narrative according to which the Iraqi government is a "government of national unity" that is "broadly representative of the Iraqi people". Others have realised that the government has failed to satisfy its obligations to reestablish the rule of law, but have instinctively attributed this failure to a lack of initiative on the part of senior Iraqi officials.

It should be obvious from the way the Iraqi state has evolved in the past three years that this narrative is completely mistaken. If Iraq has become the most corrupt country in the middle east it is not because the government is not capable of dealing with the issue - it is because the senior government officials are actually amongst the most corrupt people in the country. If violence is increasing, it is not because the government is unable to combat it, but because it is in fact involved in promoting it. If Iraq is not rife with sectarianism, it is not because Iraqis are inherently that way - far from it. It is because it was the only system on offer by a political class that depends on sectarianism to be relevant.

If the reconciliation process is failing, it is not because Iraqis are barbarians, as western commentary often suggests or implies - it is because senior politicians prefer to eliminate their opponents than to compromise. If public services are continuing to deteriorate, it is not because the government doesn't have sufficient expertise to repair them - it is because senior officials are not affected in any way, and so they don't care. And if 3,000 Iraqis continue to leave the country every day, the government fails to act not because it is incapable, but because they are disinterested - their families already live comfortably abroad anyway.

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is also the editor of www.iraqieconomy.org

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq"
(18 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination"
(21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

What is to be done?

There is clearly only one option available: the Iraqi government must go. But the solution cannot merely be to replace it with a different group of individuals, whether through elections or through an appointment process similar to what took place in 2004.

It is not a coincidence that the Iraqi government has evolved in the way that it has - it was unavoidable given the presence of the US occupation. And as long as the occupation remains in place, any individual Iraqi that will accept to work in government will much more likely than not be of the same stock as the individuals currently in power. The presence of the US army in Iraq has a deeply corrosive influence on Iraqi society, and this is what policy makers in the US should come to terms with. In order for Iraq to function, the US military should withdraw from the country as soon as possible.

There are many Iraqis who are competent, honest, and non-sectarian and who would be willing to rebuild their country, so long as the circumstances are correct. What this means in practice is that the US army must leave in order to create enough space for these people to contribute. Hussein al-Muayed, Jawad al-Khalissi, Abdul Hussein Sha'ban and many others have been waiting in the wings for the past four years and will continue to boycott the political process so long as the occupation remains in place. They are all household names in Iraq, respected for their integrity, their intelligence, and their non-sectarian credentials, but they remain largely unknown in the west precisely because they refuse to collaborate with the occupation.

Some would no doubt argue that a withdrawal of US troops in Iraq would merely lead to an increase in violence. I would suggest that the alternative - staying the current course and maintaining the presence of US forces in Iraq - is much more likely to lead to more violence. A withdrawal will force a realignment of political forces in Baghdad. The government would probably collapse - not an unattractive proposition - and because truly competent and honest political forces would accept to participate in the post-occupation phase, there is a strong likelihood that the political wrangling that would ensue would lead to a more effective and non-sectarian government.

In any event, if the US does decide to withdraw, it could do so and still play a constructive role by implementing certain measures that would reduce the potential for violence. It could start by offering to take all collaborators with them as they withdraw from Iraq, in the way that President Ford did when US forces withdrew from Vietnam. In that case, 150,000 Vietnamese were resettled in the US. In Iraq, the numbers would necessarily be far lower considering that the apparatus established in Baghdad is nowhere near the size of what it was in Saigon. This initiative could be financed merely by redirecting a small fraction of what it is costing the United States to maintain the occupation in place.

Today, there are no good solutions to the catastrophe that the US has created in Iraq. There are only those options that we know will lead to a further escalation of the conflict, and those that have a chance of leading to a positive conclusion. At this stage, it is certain that the deployment of additional US troops to Iraq will merely lead to more death and suffering. On the other hand, a unilateral and immediate withdrawal of US troops offers the possibility and some hope that an effective and non-sectarian system of government may emerge in the aftermath.

After all, and in the final analysis, what the Iraqi people need now is not more armies, more war, and more violence. What they need is to recover their independence and to be given the space to govern themselves, by themselves. What they want and what they need is to be free once and for all.

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