Back to Iraq?

They were dancing in the streets: "An old man blared on a trumpet, policemen danced in the back of their pickup trucks, and a singer," reported the Los Angeles Times, "trilled in a city park, all to celebrate the new era." A description of what happened when we invaded and "liberated" a nation groaning under the boot of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist Party dictatorship?

Guess again.

Remember how the neocons told us that we’d be greeted as "liberators" by Iraqis dancing in the streets – well, there was indeed dancing, but it didn’t occur until we announced our supposedly imminent departure. Over 4,000 American deaths – and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties – later, the U.S. has announced that it is leaving, albeit not quite yet. We’re withdrawing from Iraqi population centers and moving the troops to less visible – but perhaps more vulnerable – positions out in the country. This is the beginning of a phased withdrawal slated to culminate in a total absence of any U.S. "combat" troops after 2011.

It can’t happen fast enough as far as the Iraqis are concerned. Thousands packed a park in Baghdad, gathering to honor the reestablishment of Iraqi sovereignty, and a popular singer spoke for virtually all when he sang a song composed especially for the occasion.

"To the stage came famed singer Salah Hassan, who had left the country a decade ago but returned for the big party. The crowd roared in approval. The audience held cell phones aloft to snap photos as he crooned: ‘Iraq is loyal to us … the people of Iraq love their country.’"

But do they love their "liberators"? One participant, a professor of agricultural studies, expressed what is undoubtedly the majority opinion in his country: "Enough killing," he told the Times, "enough torture. It’s time for us to live in peace to seek our interests. We hope that everyone will realize this and let us start a new stage and solve our problems ourselves."

The professor’s hopes are already being dashed, however, as tensions – and tempers – flare between the "former" occupiers and the Iraqi government. With Iran in Washington’s cross-hairs, Tehran’s growing influence in Iraqi politics and society is seen by U.S. policymakers as a growing threat, and there have been renewed accusations by American military commanders that Iranian-trained-and-supported "special groups" are attacking U.S. troops.

These new allegations came the moment the Iraqis started taking the U.S. withdrawal pledge seriously. The day after the festivities, the Iraqi high command issued what the Washington Post described as a "curt" missive to their U.S. counterparts: no more joint patrols, and please run supply convoys only at night.

This, according to the Post, is "a new reading" of the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement (SOFA), yet perhaps the folks at the Post have trouble understanding the plain and simple English text of the agreement, which says that, while Iraq is requesting military assistance from the U.S., "all such military operations that are carried out pursuant to this agreement shall be conducted with the agreement of the government of Iraq." Furthermore, such operations "shall be fully coordinated with Iraqi authorities" – including, presumably, Iraqi military authorities. But the Americans aren’t swallowing it, as the Post reports:

"The Americans have been taken aback by the new restrictions on their activities. The Iraqi order runs ‘contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations,’ Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Washington Post.

“‘Maybe something was "lost in translation,"’ Bolger wrote. ‘We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I’m sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be.’ He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.

“‘This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid, and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe,’ he wrote. ‘We’ll do that, preferably partnered.’"

If President Obama is serious about getting out of Iraq, and if he truly respects Iraqi sovereignty – if his ascension to the presidency is really all about changing our imperial foreign policy – then Gen. Bolger should be called on the carpet and summarily canned.

It hasn’t happened, and it won’t happen, for the simple reason that Iraqi sovereignty is a myth as long as the U.S. occupation force remains. The fact that a single U.S. commander can unilaterally decide to break the SOFA and essentially tell the Iraqis to go screw themselves indicates that the American Raj is not ready to withdraw just yet.

Was withdrawal from Iraq just another campaign promise, made to be broken – like Obama’s pledges on government secrecy and other civil liberties issues? The president’s record, so far, does not bode well for an answer in the negative.

This administration of self-proclaimed "pragmatists" has no problem dispensing with principles and promises when it’s convenient. And it is decidedly inconvenient to be getting out of Iraq at the very moment we are ratcheting up pressure on our new adversary in the region: Iran.

News reports from Iraq are today routinely framed in terms of a developing conflict with Iran, expressed in terms of alleged Iranian "interference" in Iraq’s internal affairs – an odd accusation indeed coming from the government of a nation that has occupied Iraq for the last seven years! The Iranians are supposedly backing "special groups," shadowy organizations that seem to split and coalesce like microscopic amoebae. The Post informs us:

"The three primary groups – Asaib al-Haq, Khataib Hezbollah, and the Promised Day Brigades – emerged from the ‘special groups’ of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia of radical Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which terrorized Baghdad and southern Iraq beginning in 2006. All receive training, funding, and direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force."

There is something just a little bit fishy about this narrative, which is accepted at face value by the Post and, presumably, its influential though shrinking readership. The ultra-nationalistic followers of Sadr have always been militantly anti-Iranian: this is the last group supposed Iranian operatives would approach for support.

As for Asaib al-Haq, this news story about the release of one of its leaders as part of an administration effort at "reconciliation" with the group throws a rather large monkeywrench into the official narrative. Republicans charge the release was an instance of the Obamaites "negotiating with terrorists," in exchange for two British captives held since 2007. The administration maintains that this had nothing to do with the hostages – who were killed, anyway – and that it’s all about "reconciliation." And where do these rumors of negotiating with terrorists come from? The Telegraph reports:

"Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said that ‘these rumors’ of a hostage deal came from Iranian-backed insurgent factions. ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists and we did not negotiate with terrorists in this case,’ he said."

No matter which party they’re in, whether they’re in Congress, the Pentagon, or the White House itself, in Washington they all blame the Iranians. Funny how that works. Yet if the administration is claiming to be "reconciling" with Asaib al-Haq by releasing its leaders from custody, why is the White House simultaneously denouncing them as rumor-mongering Iranian agents? Or could it be that Asaib al-Haq is not Iranian-backed, and it’s the real Iranian-backed "insurgents" who are behind this whispering campaign – which has even found its echoes in the U.S. Senate?

These people have the gall to blame Tehran when it comes to the utter and complete disaster that is "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Yet Iraq has no freedom, nor has the country even been reconstituted, and the Iranians have little if anything to do with it. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani recently averred that the chances of war with Baghdad are pretty good. Bombings are a routine occurrence, with this or that shadowy group claiming responsibility. The Sunni fundamentalists are on the march, again, after having been gulled by the Americans into the "Awakening" – and then handed over to the tender mercies of the Shi’ite regime. And Iraq’s relations with Iran have been increasingly close, with mutual visits by top government officials and promises of economic and diplomatic cooperation.

This last, of course, was the inevitable result of the invasion and the dissolution of the fiercely secular Ba’athist ruling elite. The Shi’ite majority simply reasserted itself, and Iraq’s importance as the historical center of the Shi’ite faith makes it a natural ally of Tehran.

If we take the SOFA and Obama’s public statements at face value, the U.S. will be out of Iraq by 2011 – yet the agreement has at least one prominent escape hatch, and the president in whose hands its execution rests has a proclivity for slipping out the back door.

Furthermore, if the U.S. means to confront Iran on all sides and squeeze the Iranians until they scream – and that, I’m afraid, is precisely what’s in the cards – then we cannot even begin to contemplate getting out of Iraq any time soon. Analysts have been skeptical all along of Obama’s promise to withdraw according to a fixed timetable. It looks to me like their pessimism is rapidly being confirmed.

And don’t forget about that "residual" "support" group, the one that isn’t supposed to engage in combat operations directly: expect it to grow over the coming months and years – and take on a distinctly combative character.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].