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Will the U.S. leave Iraq?

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Nearly two years ago, massive resistance by the Iraqi populace and a strong majority within the Iraqi parliament forced the Bush administration to the bargaining table to sign a US-Iraq withdrawal agreement that required that "All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011." Since that time, officials within the U.S. military have often suggested that the agreement's 2011 withdrawal date could be "adjusted", allowing for some long-term presence of the U.S. military in Iraq.

The most recent example of U.S. military push-back against the withdrawal agreement was a statement by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, that the US might delay the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces if violence or political instability increased after the Iraqi elections held in early March. Odierno's comments brought a quick response from his boss, Defense Secretary Gates, that plans for withdrawal - which would draw down US troops to 50,000 by September - were "on track", and no plans for delay were being considered.

Despite President Obama's February 2009 commitment to abide by the US-Iraq agreement's requirement to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, rumors continue to circulate that the U.S. will stay in Iraq past the 2011 deadline. In a report entitled, "All Troops Out By 2011? Not So Fast," written shortly after Obama's February 2009 speech, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill cited a report by NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszeswki that "military commanders, despite this Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that all U.S. forces would be out by the end of 2011, are already making plans for a significant number of American troops to remain in Iraq beyond that 2011 deadline, assuming that Status of Forces Agreement agreement would be renegotiated. And one senior military commander told us that he expects large numbers of American troops to be in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years."

Of course, no one should accept Presidential assurances at face value, given our country's long history of failing to live up to the terms of treaties it has signed (as any Native American can attest.) But the length of the U.S. stay in Iraq is no longer purely a matter for Americans to decide. As even Jim Miklaszeswki's anonymous Generals acknowledge, any stay past 2011 would require renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement with the Iraqi government. Could the U.S. successfully pressure the Iraqi government to renegotiate the 2011 withdrawal deadline?

That prospect is looking much less likely, as U.S. hopes for a longer stay in Iraq were dealt a serious blow with the March elections in Iraq. Although most media attention has focused on the fight between Prime-Minister-wannabees Ayad Allawi and Nouri al Maliki, perhaps the most unexpected - and potentially most significant - result of the election was the strong showing by the "Sadrist" slate endorsed by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Sadr, who once led his Mahdi Army in an armed uprising against U.S. troops, hasn't been heard from much since he left Iraq in 2007 to study in the Iranian holy city of Qom. But in the March elections, al-Sadr's supporters won 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament, making them the largest component in the Iraqi National Coalition (INC), a Shia alliance that holds 70 seats in the new Parliament. As the BBC explained: "The INC holds the balance of power, since without it, neither Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc (with 91 seats) nor Mr Maliki's State of Law Coalition (with 89) can muster the necessary majority of 163 seats. So the INC can tilt the balance either way, and is strongly placed to veto any candidate or development of which it disapproves."

In all of Iraq, it would be hard to find a public figure as strongly opposed to the U.S. military presence as Muqtada al Sadr, and al Sadr now enjoys the enviable position of being able to decide who the next Iraqi Prime Minister will be. We can be sure that a guarantee not to renegotiate the 2011 withdrawal deadline will be the key demand he extracts in return for his support.

And even after the Prime Minister is chosen, we can expect al Sadr to use his block of 40 seats in Parliament to hold any Iraqi government to the original terms of the withdrawal agreement. Sadr only needs to prevent government reconsideration of the withdrawal agreement in order to force a complete U.S. withdrawal in 2011, and, as part of the governing coalition, he could accomplish that goal simply by withdrawing his support and causing the government to fall.

Although you won't often see comparisons made between the Parliamentary politics of Iraq and those of the Netherlands, there's a clear parallel between the current situation in Iraq and developments in the Netherlands earlier this year that forced a withdrawal of all Dutch troops from Afghanistan. The elected government, a multi-party coalition, came under strong pressure from the U.S. to reverse a plan for all Dutch troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Several members of the coalition government buckled under U.S. pressure, but the Dutch Labor Party, a minority member of the governing coalition, refused to go along, causing the government to fall. Without a functioning government to enact the changes demanded by the U.S., the withdrawal is proceeding as planned, with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende saying of the Dutch mission, "If nothing else will take its place, then it ends."

For the Generals who want 15 more years - or even two more years - in Iraq, the options are quickly running out. Without a willing partner to renegotiate the 2011 deadline, their only option would be to repudiate the agreement, a move that would spark a quick return of the Iraqi insurgency on a massive scale. Responding to a nationwide armed uprising would force the Generals to ship tens of thousands of U.S. troops back into Iraq from Afghanistan, at the same time that the U.S. is desperately trying to keep control of the situation there. "Imperial overstretch" is far too mild a term for what the U.S. would be facing if it decided to abrogate the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement.

But what about the contractors? Couldn't the U.S. evade the withdrawal requirement by replacing members of the uniformed military with Blackwater-style private contractors? Not really. First of all, doing so would require an Iraqi government willing to look the other way while the subterfuge was carried out, and any government with Muqtada al Sadr as a key power-player isn't going to do that. Furthermore, while armed mercenaries are what first comes to mind when we hear "private contractors", armed contractors make up only a small percentage of the total number of contractors in Iraq. Most of the U.S.-paid contractors now in Iraq are acting in support roles, working in food service, laundry and construction on massive U.S. bases. These contractors leave when the U.S. troops leave. Finally, a little-noticed (in the U.S.) provision in the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement revokes the legal immunity enjoyed by U.S. contractors at the height of the U.S. occupation. Once the first armed contractor is arrested and put on trial by the Iraqi justice system, how many minutes would it take before every one of these armed thugs has booked a plane ticket out of the country?

At this point, it seems appropriate to reflect on the goals of those in power in the U.S. when we invaded Iraq, and how far we are from achieving a single one of them. Iraq was supposed to be a center of U.S. power in the Middle East, a base from which we could threaten neighboring countries, a privatized, free-market neoliberal model for economic "reform" in the Arab world, and a gusher of guaranteed dirt-cheap gas for our SUV's and lucrative contracts for U.S. oil companies. None of these things have been achieved, and the credit for thwarting the twisted goals of our "leaders" should properly go to the millions of Iraqis and Americans who opposed and struggled against the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq.

In fact, the most important lesson that we can take away from our nine-year occupation of Iraq - and what a high price the Iraqi people have paid for this lesson - is that a corrupt partnership between the richest corporations on the planet and the most powerful military machine on the planet can be defeated. It's not only in the movies that the invaders are sent packing. How we can apply the lessons of Iraq to ending the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan will be the subject of a future article.
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Steve Burns is Program Director of Wisconsin Network of Peace a Justice, a coalition of more than 160 groups that work for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.
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