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Arab Perspective: Playing US Politics with Iraqi Blood for Oil

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Bracing for 2008 presidential election, US Democrats in opposition and the ruling Republicans have embroiled the American public in a political crisis between the executive and legislative powers over deadlines for combat operations in Iraq that could develop into a constitutional showdown, but for Arabs and Iraqis in particular it is merely playing electoral politics with Iraqi blood for oil because the Democratic Alternative for President George W. Bush's strategy, when scrutinized, promises them no fundamental change to the bloody status quo.

Building on the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group of James Baker and Lee Hamilton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi engaged Syrian leaders amid cautious Arab diplomatic and media welcome (1) after her arrival in Damascus on Tuesday in a visit that enraged President George W. Bush, in the latest manifestation of Democrat-Republican colliding approaches to secure American national interests in Iraq. Pelosi said she hoped to rebuild lost confidence between Washington and Damascus, but American politicians of both mainstream parties have a long way to go before they could win over the hearts and minds of the wider Arab masses and redress the negative public image of their country among Arabs, an image that the occupation of Iraq has damaged probably beyond repair for a long time to come.

Democrats were perceived by Arabs as promising to offer an alternative to Bush strategy in Iraq, but so far have merely proved themselves responsive to their voters' anti-war sentiments: 60 percent of the public wants to get out of Iraq, the election defeat of the Republicans was a strong indication of public sentiment, expectations have risen, yet the killing goes on, and in some ways gets worse. Yet the Democrats' supplemental budget bill provides funding to continue the war, while setting a controversial date to end it, and there is disagreement on its strategic effect. They could neither raise the "mission accomplished" banner nor could promise to do so in the near future, not even after Bush's constitutional mandate expires. How do frustrated Iraqis and Arabs make sense of "this" Democratic alternative?

Large majorities of Arabs want U.S. troops to leave Iraq sooner rather than later. According to a recent survey conducted between late February and early March in five pro-US Arab countries, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon, and released in Washington D.C. on March 28 by the Arab American Institute (AAI) and Zogby International, a polling firm, 68 percent of Saudi respondents said they considered Washington's influence in Iraq as negative, 83 percent in Egypt, 96 percent in Jordan. An earlier two surveys in late November and early December conducted by Zogby International in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco found not only that Washington's standing in the Arab world had hit rock bottom, but also that Iran was the principal beneficiary.

Nearly three out of every four respondents in Egypt and Jordan said they favoured an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, while large pluralities in the other three countries favoured that option over withdrawal only after Iraq's unity and stability are assured, maintaining current U.S. troop strength, or increasing it, as the Bush administration is currently doing. Indeed, support for the latter two options was less than ten percent in every country except Saudi Arabia. In addition, 47 percent of Jordanian and 38 percent of Egyptian respondents said they worried more about the prospect of a permanent U.S. occupation of Iraq than about its partition, the spread of its civil war, or about the strengthening of Iran.

Similarly, 57 percent of Americans support a withdrawal from Iraq according to a recent Newsweek poll. The findings from the Pew Research Center earlier this week said 59 percent of Americans supported a withdrawal deadline. The Democrats rode to power last November on the public's discontent with the war in Iraq.

The growing public opposition in the United States to the war, the Democrats' electoral victory on an exit platform, which led them to the control of the Congress, and the American debate on the deadlines for exiting Iraq are all indeed public knowledge in Iraq as well as in Arab countries. However the Democratic "alternative" has yet to make its impact felt in a way that could improve the US image among Arabs and potentially this "alternative" will blacken that image further if and when it receives more scrutiny.

Would the Democrats' alternative end the occupation? Nothing is concrete and on record so far to indicate it would. Would it end the civil war? On the contrary it will make it worse as all statements by Democrat leaders point only to a "military redeployment" to extricate their troops out of the harm's way. How could a sectarian ruling elite, which is an integral part of the sectarian divide, end a sect-based strife on its own when they were unable to do so with the combined US-Iraqi forces?

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Moreover, is this so-called alternative essentially different from the Republicans' strategy? On the unity of Iraq, oil, long-term US military presence, civil war and the "benchmarks" set for the new Iraqi rulers both alternatives are essentially the same. Their looming showdown over deadlines for combat operations in Iraq would neither set a deadline for the end of Bush era in Iraq nor herald an end to the US era in the country.

True the House on March 23 voted 218 to 212 to stop paying for U.S. combat operations in Iraq as of August 31, 2008; on March 27 the Senate voted 50-48 for a deadline on March 31, 2008. The narrow margin of both votes emboldened Bush to confirm he will veto both. Congress obviously doesn't have the two-thirds majority necessary to override his veto. It is almost certain Bush is going to keep his combat troops in Iraq for as long as he wants, until the deadline set by the US constitution for his exit on January 20, 2009.

Only then the Bush era will end in Iraq to make room for carrying on the US era in the country either by a new Republican or Democrat administration, which will depend on the outcome of playing politics with more Iraqi blood. The congress will continue the deadline play after its recess for two weeks.

Meanwhile Bush, in defiance of American public opinion and his Democratic rivals, is sending more troops to Iraq instead of bringing some back home, in a race against time to achieve a military success on the ground to pre-empt a Democratic electoral success next year, while the Democrats are manoeuvring to bet on his failure in Iraq to secure a victory in the US. Under the Bush administration's new Iraq policy announced earlier this year, the Pentagon has increased force levels in Iraq by about 30,000 troops. The United States has about 145,000 troops in Iraq.

Arab observers could not miss facts like that the Democrat-approved $124 billion supplemental funding was more than Bush himself requested; "We gave him more than he asked for, we gave him every dime that he asked for," said House Majority Whip Democratic Rep. James E. Clyburn.

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The Senate March 27 vote on a withdrawal schedule was nonbinding on the President. Democrats only require Bush to seek Congressional approval before extending the occupation and spending new funds to do so. All these factors and more boil down to simply empowering Bush to continue his bloody war for at least one more year, until the eve of the next election; the Democratic leadership is viewed merely to appear to oppose the war while continuing to fund it.

Common Ground on 'Benchmarks'

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*Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine. He is based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

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