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 Suddenly John McCain’s claim that US troops should stay on until some undefined victory sounded impractical and out of date.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.