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Analysis Last Updated: Apr 4th, 2006 - 14:48:11

The enemies of a free Iraq
By Nicolas J S Davies
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 4, 2006, 14:44

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For three years in Iraq, the United States has worked to legitimize formerly exiled Shiite politicians and to marginalize Sunni Arabs. Now the U.S. ambassador has finally acknowledged that more Iraqis are being killed by Shiite militias than by Sunnis, and the U.S. has withdrawn its support for Transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Are you confused? Let me explain.

�The enemies of a free Iraq are employing the same tactics Saddam used, killing and terrorizing the Iraqi people in an effort to foment sectarian division� --George W. Bush, 3/29/2006

The objectives of a government policy such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq can be analyzed in a number of ways. Commentary in the U.S. media tends to focus on the highest hopes some may hold for this policy or even the rhetoric used to sell it to the public. It is also useful to examine the primary objectives on which the ultimate success or failure of the policy depends, which are presumably the basis for the U.S. government�s commitment to it.

The United States� invasion and occupation of Iraq has two primary objectives, plus a third that stems from the first two. The first two are oil and �lily pads.� The third is to maintain a government or quasi-government to legitimize U.S. access to both. Everything the United States has done in Iraq has ensued from these primary objectives, which are the foundation of its long-term strategy in the Middle East. All sorts of other things may or may not be achieved, but it is these primary objectives that drive this policy and determine its ultimate success or failure.


For Western oil companies, the invasion of Iraq was a case of �Heads we win, tails you lose, and we still win.� Oil company executives with links to Dick Cheney�s Energy Task Force have reported that the optimistic assessment going in was that Iraqi oil exports could quickly be brought up from 2.5 million barrels per day to 4.5 million barrels per day. However, the worst-case scenario was that the war would cause a major disruption to Iraq�s oil exports, resulting in . . . soaring oil prices and record profits for oil companies. The latter is of course what has happened. Exports from the southern oil fields have been stuck at about 1.5 million barrels per day, while the northern pipelines have been effectively shut down by sabotage since the invasion.

The only short-term outcome that would pose a real problem for the oil companies is a regional war spreading to Saudi Arabia and other states on the Persian Gulf, but this has not happened. Looking forward, the minimum requirements for success are that some oil keeps flowing and that someone in the Green Zone continues to confer legitimacy on U.S. and British control of it.

The long-term danger is that a government will eventually come to power that breaks off this whole arrangement, for example, by aligning with Iran and Venezuela to sell oil to China, Japan and Europe in exchange for euros instead of dollars. This would also reduce the incentive for oil importing countries to acquire huge quantities of dollar assets to pay for scarce oil in the future, effectively ending the dollar hegemony that has until now compensated for structural imbalances in U.S. finances.

Lily Pads

Here�s a riddle for you, courtesy of a U.S. soldier serving in the Balkans: �What are the only two man-made objects that are visible from the space station with the naked eye?�

The answer: �The Great Wall of China and Camp Bondsteel!�

Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo could be considered the first �lily pad,� the first of a new generation of U.S. bases in new locations around the world. But what is new about these bases? There are at least 700 U.S. military bases all over the world, and most of them have been there for decades.

The first difference is their locations. Camp Bondsteel is strategically positioned on the route of a new oil pipeline, and Donald Rumsfeld has promoted the lily pad concept specifically with the Middle East and other oil-rich areas in mind. The most striking difference however lies in their relationship with the areas surrounding them. U.S. bases of the previous generation enjoy an intimate relationship with their surroundings, if a bit too intimate at times. Local people work on base. U.S. personnel travel or even live off base. For better or for worse, the bases are a symbiotic part of the local environment. But lily pads are different.

As the name implies, a lily pad is an island, existing independently of whatever surrounds it. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post visited the largest lily pad in Iraq, Balad Air Base, and wrote about his impressions under the headline �Biggest base in Iraq has small town feel� (2/6/06). He described a place in the middle of Iraq where there are 20,000 U.S. troops but no Iraqis. The cafeteria workers and janitors are from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The PX sells iPods and T.V. sets, and there is a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye�s, a �Green Beans� Starbucks-type coffee shop and a 24-hour Burger King. All supplies come from outside the country, delivered by air or trucked in from Kuwait or Turkey in convoys with heavily armed military escorts. A military dietitian told Ricks that soldiers typically put on about 10 pounds during their deployment at Balad -- Napoleon must be smiling in his grave.

There is a military rationale for all this. These are offensive bases in hostile territory and may very well remain that way. Over the next 50 years, the oil supply is going to decline, and these bases have a specific military purpose, to mount offensive operations against anyone that challenges U.S. control of dwindling oil reserves. The lily pads are not dependent on the stability of the areas that surround them, and the fate of the Iraqi people is of no direct consequence to their security.

As we get used to B-2 bombers circling the globe on bombing runs to the Middle East, it is easy to forget that the fighter planes that provide close air support for U.S. ground troops have a much shorter range. The tactical radius of an F-16 loaded with six bombs is only 360 miles, which is why Israel can�t destroy Iran�s nuclear sites unassisted with conventional weapons. The lily pads are therefore critical to maintaining an offensive threat against Iraq, Iran and anyone that becomes an obstacle to U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil. If you�re a Democrat who can�t understand why your �representatives� in Washington continue to support the war, you might want to keep this in mind.

Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of the Independent, who has lived in the region for 20 years, compares American lily pads to the crusader castles whose ruins dot the landscape of the region. Fisk suggests that a U.S. soldier looking out from his lily pad is at least as disconnected and alienated from the world he looks out on as a European crusader looking out from his castle walls 900 years ago.

As with the oil that the lily pads are designed to secure, the danger is that a government will come to power in Iraq that rejects this whole arrangement and asks the U.S. to withdraw its forces and surrender the lily pads.

The Green Zone

This brings us to the third U.S. objective, the Green Zone, the super-lily pad where the crown jewel of the occupation, the $600 million U.S. Embassy, is being built and where the �political process� takes place. In 1990, U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft advised against an invasion of Iraq because, sooner or later, there would have to be an election, which �our guys will lose.� The purpose behind all the reactive twists and turns of U.S. policy in Iraq has been not so much to form a sovereign government as to prevent the formation of the government Scowcroft predicted, one that will undermine the primary goals of U.S. policy by asking the U.S. to withdraw its forces or charting an independent oil policy.

Two years ago, I suggested to a friend who is a military historian and a supporter of the war in Iraq that the U.S. policy was simply a classic �divide and conquer� strategy. He responded, �How else do you do it?� I answered that you don�t, to which he replied, �But we have.�

It was necessary from the outset for the United States to find some basis on which to divide the people of Iraq to create a constituency for Iraqi politicians who would cooperate with U.S. objectives. The Kurds were natural allies for the U.S. but they only comprise 20 percent of the population and are concentrated in one corner of the country. While Sunnis and Shiites have coexisted in central Iraq for centuries and educated secular Iraqis do not identify themselves primarily by sect, the more isolated Shiites in the south provided a constituency that could be mobilized by formerly exiled religious leaders and American promises of political power.

Saddam Hussein did not �kill and terrorize the Iraqi people in an effort to foment sectarian division� as Bush claimed. He killed and terrorized people to maintain a homogeneous secular regime in spite of ethnic and religious differences. The Baath Party began as an opposition socialist party, and initially attracted large numbers of Shiite supporters. Once the Baathists came to power in 1963, Shiites filled posts at all levels of government roughly in proportion with their numbers in the population. For 27 years between 1963 and 1990, there was always a majority of Shiites on the Revolutionary Command Council, the executive cabinet of the Baathist regime.

The �Shiite rebellion� in the south that followed the Gulf War led to purges of Shiites from government ministries and the military. The surviving leaders of the rebellion now believe that their biggest mistake was their failure to include Sunnis and other parts of the country in their revolt, which they always viewed as a popular uprising against a repressive government, not as a sectarian conflict.

Islamist Shiites were not the first choice of U.S. policymakers to lead a U.S.-appointed Iraqi government. In 1998, 40 Americans who shaped what later became U.S. policy signed a letter to President Clinton asking the U.S. government to �recognize a provisional government of Iraq based on the principles and leaders of the Iraqi National Congress,� the exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi. The signatories included Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Carlucci, Perle, Armitage, Feith, Abrams, Bolton and Khalilzad.

By June 2004, Chalabi had become an embarrassment to his American supporters, so Iyad Allawi, the leader of another exile group called the Iraqi National Accord, was installed as interim prime minister over the objections of U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi who was supposed to be in charge of the selection process. As Brahimi put it, �Bremer is the dictator of Iraq. He has the money. He has the signature. . . . I will not say who was my first choice, and who was not my first choice . . . I will remind you that the Americans are governing this country." The U.S. viewed Allawi as a strongman who could impose order and Iraqis soon knew him as �Saddam without the mustache.�

The failure of the U.S. occupation to conjure an illusion of legitimacy among the people of Iraq has meant that any Iraqi politician supported primarily by the Americans is by definition illegitimate in the eyes of his own people. When an election was finally held in January 2005, Allawi�s Iraqi National List lost spectacularly. Officially, it received 14 percent of the vote, but most Iraqis believe it would have been in single digits without extensive election fraud. For the more recent election in December 2005, Allawi incorporated a kaleidoscope of Sunni, Communist, Socialist, Syrian and Turkmen parties into his list but did even worse, receiving only 8 percent of the votes.

The three largest Shiite Islamist political groups in Iraq are SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), headed by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim; the Dawa party, headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari; and Muqtada al-Sadr�s group. They all have close ties with Iran, so the U.S. cannot afford to give any of them free rein. Instead the U.S. plays them off against the Kurds, the Sunnis and each other to maintain a balance of power in which it retains significant influence. Whenever the U.S. has tried to marginalize any group or leader -- the Sunnis, al-Sadr, Chalabi or former Baathists -- it has ended up having to rehabilitate them in order to prevent another group or coalition of groups gaining enough power to declare independence from U.S. policy.

The U.S. occupation continues to further the decomposition of Iraqi society because, at every turn, the only real possibilities for stability run counter to U.S. interests, leaving further instability as the least worst option for U.S. policymakers. According to the latest PIPA poll (1/31/06), overwhelming majorities of Iraqis want a timetable for an end to the U.S. presence in their country (87 percent), blame the U.S. for its continuing decomposition, and believe that security (67 percent), public services (67 percent) and political cooperation between factions (73 percent) will improve if U.S. forces leave; and these numbers are much higher if Kurdish Iraqis are excluded from the sample. However, 80 percent of Iraqis believe that the U.S. plans to maintain a permanent military presence in their country, and 76 percent believe that the U.S. would refuse to leave if requested to do so by an Iraqi government.

The only way for the U.S. to maintain its primary objectives in the context of such a lack of legitimacy is to keep shuffling the deck and offering incentives for different political factions to keep playing its game. How long this is politically and diplomatically tenable remains to be seen. The danger for the U.S. government is that at some point Iraqi, American and worldwide opposition to the occupation will coalesce into a united front and this phase of the war will be over.

The moment when an Iraqi government asks the U.S. to pull out its forces would be a critical one. The outcome would be uncertain and potentially more violent than anything we have seen to date. One can only hope that a combination of political and diplomatic pressure would persuade the U.S. government to comply with such a request. Either way, the runways in the lily pads would be busier than ever, whether ferrying troops and equipment out of the country or dispatching fleets of warplanes to targets all over Iraq. The massive investment of financial and political capital that has already been poured into the lily pads makes the latter seem more likely. And after all, that is what they�re for.

As for the identity of the mysterious Enemies of a Free Iraq that Bush alluded to, we can only echo the old Pogo cartoon: �We have met the enemy and he is us!�

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