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The Forgotten War

Who Wants Those Troops to Stay in Iraq?

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The United States is negotiating to keep several thousand troops in Iraq beyond the official withdrawal date at the end of the year, but its influence in the country is being eclipsed by Iran and Turkey.

The US and Iraq are discussing whether some 10,000 American soldiers should remain as a symbol of continuing US engagement in Iraq and for training purposes. Officials in Washington have suggested that there may be an even lower residual force of between 3,000 and 4,000 men, but this may be a negotiating ploy to get the fractious Iraqi government to make a decision.

Whatever the final figure, the number will be a fraction of the 146,000 soldiers who were in Iraq in early 2009; their departure means America’s status is waning as a foreign power in the country.

Iranian influence is growing in Baghdad because of the escalating struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims across the region. The Shia-dominated coalition government in Baghdad is worried that the Sunni uprising in Syria may displace Bashar al-Assad and his regime, whose leaders come mostly from the Alawite Shia sect. The Iraqi Shia also strongly sympathize with the Shia majority in Bahrain, whose movement for democracy has been ruthlessly crushed by the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Kurds and many of the Sunni in Iraq, together almost 40 per cent of the population, would like a continuing US military presence to balance the influence of the Shia majority at home and of Iran abroad.

The Kurds would like the US to continue its role in defusing tensions in the large areas of northern Iraq where Kurdish and Arab populations are intermingled. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, paranoid about Iranian influence, want US troops to stay, to keep out Iran.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, owes his job to his ability to balance between Washington and Tehran. But he was only able to form a new government thanks to the support of the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his party, which espouses a mix of Shi’ism, nationalism and populism. Sadr followers are to hold a rally in Baghdad Friday demanding a full US withdrawal.

Turkey’s influence is growing in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East because it is a Muslim state with a strong government, prospering economy, powerful army and large population. It is able to project growing authority among Arab states such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Tunisia and Libya, all of which have been weakened by wars, civil wars and rebellions. Iraq remains weak because of its sectarian and ethnic divisions. “There is no national identity any longer,” Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist and commentator, said. “Iraqis are either Sunni, Shia or Kurd.” Attiyah said Iran will ultimately tolerate a small US force remaining in Iraq, because the majority of US troops will have gone and those remaining are too few to be militarily effective. “Will the Iranians find 10,000 men too many?” Attiyah asked. “I doubt it.”

Iraqi politicians have in the past said they suspect Iran might like some American soldiers to remain in Iraq because they present a target for attack by special military groups, drawn from the Sadrist movement but controlled by Iran.

The US, for its part, will try to retain its influence in Iraq by operating through the CIA, forces attached to the US embassy and military contractors.

Iraqi divisions mean that foreign states will play a big role in the country, but, while they will struggle for influence, none has an interest in seeing the country relapse into civil war.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq and Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq.