A Whole New Ballgame in Iraq


There are few American patrols on the streets of Baghdad and soon there will be none. In just over two weeks time on June 30, US military forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities. The occupation which began six years ago is ending. On every side there are signs of the decline of US influence.

When the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki held a meeting with his 300 top military commanders in Baghdad last week a US general who tried to attend was told to leave. “We apologize to you, but this is an Iraqi meeting and you’re not invited,” he was told by an Iraqi general. Mr Maliki, who was put into power by the US in 2006, spoke of the departure of US troops as if he had been leading an insurgency against them. “Foreign forces have to withdraw from the cities totally,” he said in the course of an hour long speech in which he mentioned America only once. “This is a victory that should be celebrated in feasts and festivals.”

Given that the US is Mr Maliki’s main ally this seems to show an astonishing lack of gratitude on his part. American commanders and diplomats comfort themselves by reflecting that Mr Maliki is burnishing his Iraqi nationalist credentials in the months before the crucial parliamentary elections at the end of next January. But his public distancing himself from the US shows that he believes that anti-Americanism has a strong appeal to the majority of Iraqis.

There are other more covert signs of receding American influence. In the years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the Iraqi National Intelligence forces were controlled and paid for by the CIA. The agency appointed its chief, General Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani, who had long worked for the US. For several years Iraqi intelligence did not even appear in the Iraqi budget and senior Iraqi officers in it all worked with US advisers. Iraqi politicians say that Iraqi Intelligence is now reverting to the control of their government.

Iraqis are only slowly taking on board that the US is really pulling out. Some 133,000 US troops remain in the country, the last combat troops will depart only  in August 2010 and the remaining US forces at the end of 2011. The 16,000 Marines who have been in Anbar province west of Baghdad since 2003 will leave Iraq by next spring. But, as Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress and an astute judge of Iraqi politics, says: “Whatever you may hear from American generals in Iraq, Obama has made clear that US is really pulling out.”

The knowledge that the US forces in Iraq will go is already transforming the Iraqi political landscape, long before the exit of the last American troops.  It is no longer politic for any Iraqi leader to be identified in the eyes of Iraqis with the American occupation.

The US forces are leaving behind a country in which security is much better than during the bloodbath of 2006-7, but is still probably the most dangerous country in the world. Many Iraqis ask themselves if there will be an upsurge of fighting as the US troops go, though violence is already high. Last week saw serious incidents in Baghdad, as well as northern and southern Iraq, that underscore the fragility of the improved security.

The most dramatic attack was the assassination of Harith al-Obaidi, the leader of the main Sunni bloc in parliament, as he was leaving the al-Shawaf mosque in the Yarmouk district of west Baghdad on Friday. His killer shot dead Mr Obaidi, his secretary and three of his bodyguards, before he was cornered by guards and blew himself up with a grenade. The method of the assassination, and the fact the assassin killed himself, bear all the hallmarks of an al-Qa’ida attack. Mr al-Obaidi had only recently taken over as leader of the Sunni bloc and was a campaigner on behalf of prisoners. The most likely motive is that al-Qa’da in Iraq, though it has lost much of its strength in the Sunni community from which it springs over the last two years, wants to show that it can eliminate any Sunni leader who cooperates with the government.

Al-Qa’ida had demonstrated its long reach against a Shia target earlier in the week when a car bomb blew up in the town of Batha outside the city of Nassariya, 225 miles south east of Baghdad, killing at least 30 people and wounding 65. This appears to be a sectarian attack by al-Qa’ida on poor people in a crowded market place, geared to killing as many Shia as possible. The target was probably chosen to show that al-Qa’oda can strike deep in the Shia heartlands.

In northern Iraq Kurds and Arabs are engaged in a war of words that has a potential for violence that could surpass anything that al-Qa’ida is capable of. At stake is control, along a 300-mile-long unofficial frontier, of areas which are outside the boundaries of the highly autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government but have a Kurdish majority. In 2003 the Kurds, allied to the US, were able to capture Mosul and Kirkuk, the two biggest cities of northern Iraq. They remained in control of Nineveh province, which is one third Kurdish and two thirds Sunni Arab and the capital of which is Mosul, until provincial elections in January this year. These elections were won by al-Habda, a Sunni party with an anti-Kurdish platform, under Atheel al-Nujaifi who is now governor. There have been continual incidents ever since as al-Habda and the central government in Baghdad try to reassert control.

The Kurdish forces are not giving any ground. On  May 8 Mr al-Nujaifi tried to enter the Kurdish-held town of Bashiqa. The Kurds issued “a shoot to kill” order against him and he eventually turned back. “Nobody admits to issuing the order,” says a diplomat in Baghdad, “but if al-Nujaifi had been killed then Arabs and Kurds would have started slaughtering each other all over Nineveh.” When the Sunni Arab police chief of Nineveh tried to enter a Kurdish part of his province a few weeks later his convoy, though it contained Iraqi soldiers and police, was again forced to retreat by the Kurdish forces.

The Kurds can feel the balance of power swinging against them as the Americans depart, the central government in Baghdad grows in political and military strength and the Arabs in Nineveh and Kirkuk become more assertive. The President of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, has not seen Mr Maliki for many months. “We have better relations with Ankara than we do with Baghdad these days,” said one Kurdish leader. On top of territorial disputes there are deep divisions over oil, which is being discovered in large quantities in the KRG under contacts the Oil Ministry in Baghdad denounces as illegal.

War between Kurds and Arabs is possible in northern Iraq but both sides have a lot to lose. The Kurds hold critical posts in the Baghdad government. They are much the best organized faction within it. So long as they are part of the Baghdad government they are much better able to withstand pressure from Turkey, Iran and Syria. Mr Maliki also has a lot to lose if he has a conflict with the Kurds. The Iraqi coalition which replaced Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni regime was a Shia-Kurdish one. The Kurds have shown over half a century that they can destabilize Iraq and even Saddam Hussein was unable to crush them. Mr Maliki may be tempted to take advantage of the current strong anti-Kurdish feeling among Iraqi Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, to gain popularity before the parliamentary elections next January, but it would be a short-sighted and dangerous move.
Although Iraq remains very violent and the Iraqi government corrupt and dysfunctional, the prospects for the country may not be so bleak as they at fist sight appear. Two wars were fought in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. One was the insurgency based in the Sunni community against the US occupation from 2003 to 2007. The other was a bloody civil war between Sunni and Shia at its height in 2006-7. Both these wars are ending. The US forces are going. The Shia largely won the civil war. Baghdad is now three quarters Shia and they control the 600,000-strong security forces. It would be difficult, and probably suicidal, for the Sunni community to go back to war. Al-Qa’ida would like to provoke Shia retaliation against the Sunni by repeated atrocities but so far this has not happened.

Iraq may not explode into renewed war as US troops depart but this does not mean that it is solving its problems. The government is divided into factions. Shia, Kurdish and Sunni leaders all fear and distrust each other. The same is true of their followers. Iraqi society and the economy remain shattered by 30 years of war and sanctions. But one of the main destabilizing factors in Iraq for the last six years has been the presence of a large US army and with its departure Iraq’s many simmering conflicts might just be kept under control.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.


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).