Iraq’s Nationalist Surge

Barack Obama was lucky in the timing of his visit to Iraq. He arrived just  after the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki had rejected a new Status of  Forces Agreement (SOFA) institutionalizing the US occupation. The Iraqi  government is vague about when it wants the final withdrawal of US  combat troops, but its spokesman Ali al-Dabagh said that they should be  gone by 2010. This is within the same time frame as Obama’s promise to  withdraw one combat brigade a month over 16 months. Suddenly John  McCain’s claim that US troops should stay on until some undefined victory  sounded impractical and out of date.

The Iraqi government seemed almost surprised by its own decisiveness.  It is by no means as confident as it pretends that it can survive without US  backing, but it unexpectedly found itself riding a nationalist wave. The US  occupation has always been unpopular among Iraqi Arabs since 2003. A  poll by ABC News, the BBC and other television networks in February 2008  showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis say that the presence of US forces  makes security worse in Iraq and 27 per cent say they improve it. The only  large pocket of support for the US occupation is among the Kurds who are  about a fifth of the population. Among the Iraqi Arabs, the other four fifths,  some 96 per cent of the Sunni and 82 per cent of the Shia says they have  no confidence in the US occupation forces.   The unpopularity of the occupation has been the fundamental political  fact in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein five years ago.  American and British politicians, diplomats and soldiers usually failed to  realize this. In response to the poll figures, which year after year have  shown that Iraqis hate the occupation, they produce self-serving  explanations, saying that in private ” Iraqis will always say they do not  want us to leave immediately.” They then go on to claim, in the face of all  the evidence, that this means that Iraqis secretly do not want the  occupation forces to depart. Self-deception like this means that American  commentators often speak of the extent and timing of a US troop  withdrawal as if it was a purely American decision, something to be  decided by the outcome of the US presidential election. “Iraqis may be  deeply divided along sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and factional lines,” writes  Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies  in Washington and one of the few US commentators to have an  understanding of Iraqi politics. He points out that Iraqis “have a national  consciousness, a great deal of national pride, and they do not want to  be ‘occupied’ or have a US presence any longer than necessary.” During  the sectarian civil war between Sunni and  Shia in Baghdad in 2006-7 Iraqi  nationalism may have been at a low ebb, but as the sectarian slaughter  ebbed it has begun to reassert itself.

There is an edgy mood both in the Iraqi government and among ordinary  Iraqis. The number of dead bodies being picked up in the streets of  Baghdad is well down on a year ago, but nobody knows how long this will  last. “For the moment life is better but everybody has fear in their hearts,”  one Shia woman told me. And the fall in violence is only in comparison to  the previous bloodbath. Some 554 Iraqis were killed this June, which was  66 per cent lower than year earlier, but still makes Iraq the most  dangerous country in the world. Alcohol is once again openly on sale,  showing that the shopkeepers who sell it are no longer as terrified as they  once were of Islamic militiamen. But Sunni and Shia no longer visit each  other’s districts. Baghdad is still divided up into sectarian ghettoes sealed  off from each other by high concrete walls. The 2.4 million refugees who  fled to Syria and Jordan are not returning in large numbers. When they do  it is often because residence visas have become more difficult to obtain in  Damascus and Amman. The Shia, always the majority in Baghdad, seized  most of the rest of the capital in a savage war waged by assassins and  death squads two years ago. There is no sign of these demographic  changes being reversed. When Sunni and Shia try to get their houses back  in areas that have been purged by the other community, they are in  immediate danger of being killed. When a husband and wife, both Shia,  went to visit the house from which they had fled in the heavily Sunni al-Mekanik district of Dora in south Baghdad they were instantly shot dead and their driver beheaded. The militias may have left the streets, but they have not gone very far.

Visiting dignitaries to the Green Zone, be they George Bush, Tony Blair  or Barack Obama, seldom realize the extent of the military operations  required to protect them or the impact of these on Iraqis. Not surprisingly  the visitors get an exaggerated impression of the progress towards  normality in Baghdad.  Last year US embassy employees in the heart of  the Green Zone complained that they were ordered not to wear body  armour and helmets if they were photographed or filmed standing beside  John McCain because their attire might seem to contradict his claim that  Baghdad was a safer place than was being reported. When Vice President  Dick Cheney visited there was a ban in the Green Zone on sounding the  siren which normally gives a few seconds warning of incoming rocket or  mortar rounds. Cheney’s staffers thought the sirens’ menacing wail might  suggest to American television viewers that all was not as well in Iraq as  the vice president was claiming. In the case of Barack Obama’s visit on 21 July much of central Baghdad was closed down to guarantee his safety,  deep though he was within the Green Zone. A friend called Gaylan had taken his car out to get its air conditioner fixed in the Karada district of  east Baghdad when US troops stopped all traffic at 12.15pm. Caught in  the torrid heat of the Iraqi summer, he and other drivers were not allowed  to move again until six in the evening. “There were helicopters overhead  to control the sky,” Gaylan said. “They blocked Abu Nawas Street opposite  the Green Zone and searched the houses there. Then they moved to the  Babylon hotel and took up positions on the rooftops. I was stuck in the  traffic the whole evening,” During his long wait Gaylan had plenty of time  to ask what the other drivers what they thought of Obama and his visit.  Their opinions were unsurprisingly bitter. “Why does it matter to us if a  white man or a black man wins the [US presidential] election,” replied one  irate driver. “Obama and Bush are two faces on the same currency, an  American currency.” Another asked: “Why does he come here? What will  he do for us? Will he fix the electricity? He is just coming because of the  election.” A third driver was dubious about Obama’s plan to pull out US  forces. “He says he’ll withdraw his troops from Iraq, but I don’t believe  that,” he said. “The Americans planned for a long time to take over Iraq to  protect Israel from Iran and seize the oil here.”

Not all official visitors even get as far as Baghdad. A week before  Obama arrived, King Abdullah of Jordan had been expected to make his  first official visit to Iraq. This was of some importance because in the past  Abdullah had warned of the danger of revolutionary Shi’ism sweeping  through the Middle East. Along with other Sunni Arab rulers, he had  watched with horror as, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s  predominantly Sunni regime, a Shia-Kurdish government was established  in Baghdad under American protection. His visit to open a new Baghdad  embassy, replacing one blown up in August 2003, was to be an important  sign that the Sunni Arab rulers were beginning to accept that the new  Iraqi government was here to stay. But at the last moment the visit was  cancelled as Jordanian officials cited ‘security concerns’. Iraqi police said  that Jordanian security had run a dummy convoy of special armoured black  four wheel vehicles through the al-Mansur district the day before the King  arrived to test the safety of the route. As the convoy sped through the  streets of al-Mansur the Jordanians heard the sound of gunfire close at  hand and feared this might be an assassination attempt by gunmen  hoping to kill the king. “In fact,” explained an Iraqi army officer with the  6th Division which was protecting Abdullah, “we had sealed off the roads  so the king’s convoy could pass, when an old man drove his car from a sub- road onto the main road so our soldiers began to shoot into the air to get  his attention and make him go back.” Evidently the Jordanians did not  wholly accept this benign explanation of the gunfire and promptly  cancelled the visit.    The Iraqi government’s confidence is of recent birth. Four months ago  the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki looked as if he was about to be  deposed. “In March most of the political parties including ourselves were  ready to get rid of him,” said a Kurdish official. “Then he had his success in  Basra and Sadr City and since then he has been over-confident and hardly  listens to what we say to him.” The government’s success against the  Mehdi Army militiamen of Muqtada al-Sadr was not quite all it seemed. In  the first rounds of fighting the Iraqi army got nowhere, some of its units  mutinying and handing over their arms. It was American troops who did  most of the fighting in Sadr City and supplied the logistics and air and  artillery support in Basra. Nobody knows what would happen if the Iraqi  army had to fight the Mehdi Army on its own. There are still 1,000 US  troops in Basra and another battalion supporting the Iraqi army in Amara  province, once a Mehdi Army stronghold in southern Iraq. The turning point  in the fighting was not only American military intervention but al-Sadr  calling his men off the streets and Iran backing the Maliki government. This  is a point made by Ahmed Chalabi, the much maligned but highly astute  opponent of Saddam Hussein, in his well-defended headquarters in  Baghdad. “People fail to realize that the success of the ‘surge’ was the  result of a tacit agreement between the US and Iran,” he says. This was  true when Muqtada, who would need Iranian support if he was to fight a  real war with the Iraqi government backed by the US, declared a truce at  the start of the surge last year. Iran does not want to do anything to  weaken or destroy the first Shia government in the Arab world since the  Saladin overthrew the Fatimids in Cairo 800 years ago.

The departing American commander General David Petraeus keeps  saying that the fall in violence and the extension of government control in  Iraq is ‘fragile and reversible’. His caution is based on experience. In 2004  in Mosul Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division,  appeared to have pacified the northern city of Mosul. But eight months  after he departed, insurgents took over the city, the police and army  changed sides or went home, 30 police stations were captured along with  $41 million worth of arms. It is unlikely that the same thing will happen to  the Maliki government. But some Iraqi politicians believe that the Mehdi  Army is simply lying low and could take over half Baghdad in 48 hours.  For the moment the Sadrists have gone to ground. Muqtada sits in his  house in the holy city of Qom in Iran where he says he is pursuing his  religious studies. His strategy is not to be drawn into a fight before the  Americans depart or draw down their forces. When crowds attending  Sadrist[-controlled mosques in Sadr City in July started to tear down  barriers in the streets placed there by the Iraqi army, it was Sadrist  preachers who pleaded with them to go home and avoid a  confrontation. “He [Muqtada] is not the kind of man,” says his spokesman  Salah al-Obaidi, “who plucks the fruit before it is ripe.”

The Iraqi government for its part is eager to liquidate the Sadrist movement, despite its deep roots in the impoverished Shia masses, while the Iraqi army is  backed by American firepower. Class divisions are deep in the Shia  community and the Shia middle class would like to see the Sadrist  movement permanently crushed. Persecution is unrelenting. In Basra even  men selling cassettes of songs praising Muqtada have been told by the  police to throw them away and sell gypsy music instead. In Amara the  army is under continual pressure from the Maliki government to arrest any  Sadrists they can find. The Sadrist governor has been put under arrest,  the province is effectively under martial law and even Sadrists who took  advantage of an amnesty are being arrested. But the Sadrists and the  Mehdi Army depend ultimately on a core of committed militants who  survived much more savage persecution under Saddam Hussein. They will  be difficult to eliminate. Muqtada himself is still revered in millions of Shia  households though his picture is less evident. Bashir Ali and Ahmed  Mohammed, two powerful anti-Sadrist tribal sheikhs from Sadr City, told  me that they thought “the Sadrist current had lost much of its support in  Sadr City and does not have the strength to stage an uprising.” They are  hardly unbiased observers because they freely admitted that the Sadrists  had reduced the power of the tribes and they were eager to seize it back.  But, while claiming that the Sadrists, had lost popularity they admitted that  they did not dare criticize them in public “because they would shoot us  down the next time we went to the mosque to pray.”   The bitterness between Maliki and the Sadrists is all the deeper  because it was their members of parliaments who made him prime  minister. Their ministers withdrew from his government in 2007 because  the prime minister had not demanded a timeline for for an American  military pull out  from Bush. Sadrist crowds demonstrate every Friday  demanding an American withdrawal.  Paradoxically, Maliki’s government is  now asking for an American withdrawal along the lines Muqtada  demanded over the coming years. Iraqi nationalism, along with religious  revivalism and social populism, is what has given the Sadrists such  widespread appeal.  It was largely because Maliki did not want to be  denigrated as an American pawn that he objected so vigorously to the  new military agreement or SOFA that would have institutionalized the  American occupation and replaced the current UN mandate. He may be  nervous about what he would do without American support, but they have  no alternative Iraqi leader with which to replace him. Nor would this be as  easy to do as it was two years ago. At that time the US ambassador  helped get rid of Maliki’s predecessor as prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari,  by saying that Bush ‘doesn’t want, doesn’t support, and doesn’t accept’  that Jaafari should lead the government. Since then the Iraqi state,  ramshackle though it is, has gone a long way to reconstitute itself with  over half a million men under arms and an oil income next year of $150  billion.

America made a mistake in pushing for a SOFA with Iraq at the time it  did. When the US presented its first draft of the security agreement in  March, it envisaged simply continuing the occupation in which the US would  be colonial overlord. The agreement the US had in mind was compared by  Iraqis to the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930, under which Britain retained  enough authority in Iraq to discredit Iraqi governments which were seen  by many Iraqis as puppets of the imperial power.  “What the Americans  were offering us in terms of real sovereignty is even less than the British  did eighty years ago,” said one Iraqi leader. The agreement was  supported by the Kurds and initially by the pro-American wing of the  Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the two main supports of the present  government, who wanted to lock in US support for their present elevated  status. But the US, along with many of its allies in the Green Zone has  always tended to underestimate the extent to which the occupation is  disliked by Iraqis outside Kurdistan. It is not that the government wants  the Americans to go quite yet. “The government lacks faith in itself and  wants to be baby-sat by the US army,” said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran  and influential MP who freely admits that his feelings as a Kurd are  different from his feelings as an Iraqi. He opposed the SOFA with the US  saying: “I think it was being hurried through because the US wanted an  achievement for this administration to benefit the Republican party in the  elections.”

The failed attempt to reach an agreement between Iraq and the US  helped crystallize Iraqi resentment over the occupation: the military bases,  the immunity for US soldiers and contractors, the  23,000 Iraqis held  prisoner by the US, the ability of US troops to arrest Iraqis and carry out  military operations at will. The extent of the nationalist backlash by Iraqis  surprised both Maliki’s government and Washington. But there were other  forces also at play. The Iranians had played a central role in mediating an  end to the fighting between the Iraqi army and the Mehdi Army in March  and May. The Iranians also made clear that they would not accept the new  US-Iran security agreement. What proponents of the ‘surge’ like John  McCain never understood was that its success, in so far that it was  successful, depended on Iran cooperating with it. The new security  agreement would destroy this cooperation. “The Iranians are implacably  opposed to the deal,” said Chalabi, who had just seen the Iranian leaders  in Tehran. “It consecrates America’s massive presence in Iraq and  threatens their security. They say it will be a ‘non-security agreement’ and  not a ‘security agreement.’” Maliki’s increasing willingness to stand up to  the US over the agreement may well be the result of a private assurance  from Iran that he will not face an uprising by the Mehdi Army in southern  Iraq if he does so. The struggle for power in Iraq is entering a new phase.  The US may not have got the agreement it wanted with Iraq, but it  remains the predominant military power in the country. The US still largely  controls the Iraqi army. Whether Obama or McCain wins the presidential  election the battle for who really rules in Baghdad will go on.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.






Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).