Remember Iraq

With all the attention being paid to the sorry aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – most of the media, especially the 24/7 cable channels, don’t seem to be able to focus on more than one story at a time, but perhaps we should be grateful that Natalee Holloway has been pushed out of the picture – it is all too possible that Iraq will be pushed out of the American consciousness. This is a shame, because the case for bringing American troops home is stronger by the day, and developments within Iraq might make prospects for success for those who seek U.S. withdrawal sooner rather than later more propitious than ever. With important demonstrations scheduled for next week, it behooves us to refocus.

It’s not that Katrina and all that it has exposed about the incompetence of government at every level isn’t important. In fact, I think it is a very big deal, in that it has revealed the hollowness at the core of the American state and indeed at the core of the regime of statism. The sheer ineptitude of a state system of response to terror and disaster that has been beefed up with countless billions and innumerable scenarios and exercises has not only harmed the Bush administration but the bloated behemoth over which he pretends to preside.

Katrina and its aftermath may also be helpful to the antiwar cause. There is very little question that having about a third of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s National Guard in Iraq was a contributing factor in the slow response, although the level of bureaucratic bungling suggests it might not have been the decisive factor. And recent polls suggest strongly that most Americans – 57 percent according to a CBS News poll – agree. The magnitude of the problems that face the government in the wake of Katrina might also militate in favor of returning troops from Iraq more quickly. At the very least, the catastrophic scale of the disaster and the resources likely to be considered essential to repairing the damage should serve as an even stronger deterrent than the widespread perception that Iraq has been a bungle against future interventionist adventures.

Permission to Withdraw?

On Sept. 6, while the media were still, understandably enough, in Katrina mode, according to the Washington Post, "The U.S. military pulled hundreds of troops out of the southern city of Najaf on Tuesday, transferring security duties to Iraqi forces and sticking to a schedule that the United States hopes will allow the withdrawal of tens of thousands of its forces by early spring." On the same day, of course, there was news of roadside bombs in Baghdad and Ramadi and bombing to try to control insurgent activities in the western province of Anbar. And some U.S. forces will remain in Najaf in an advisory role. But 400 U.S. soldiers left Najaf, which, while it has seen little insurgent activity lately, was the scene of bloody battles with the Mahdi Army militia loyal to renegade Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Later that week, U.S. and Iraqi units backed by airstrikes attacked the northern city of Tal Afar, which has been more or less under the control of guerrillas for months. After the battles, the largest military operations in months, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari felt secure enough to visit the town in something of a triumphal procession.

This Tuesday, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani "said in an interview yesterday that the United States could withdraw as many as 50,000 troops by the end of the year, declaring there are enough Iraqi troops trained and ready to begin assuming control in cities throughout the country."

The Washington Post did note later that a Talabani senior adviser called to "clarify" the statement by saying the president had not called for a specific timetable. And during his joint press conference with President Bush on Wednesday – presumably after this leader of "fully sovereign" Iraq had been taken to the woodshed – he said he was on board with the "no timetable" mantra and even thought a too-hasty withdrawal could be dangerous.

But he had made certain, before the "clarifications" and the bow to the real sovereign, that he expressed the opinion that it was time for U.S. troops to start leaving Iraq, and sooner rather than later. It is difficult not to believe that is his real sentiment, and that it is shared by most Iraqis.


To be sure, an increasing willingness and perhaps capacity on the part of the Iraqis to handle governance in their own country is not the whole story. In the past several weeks there has been plenty of insurgent-linked violence. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. proconsul – er, ambassador – in Baghdad, has recently complained that Syria is continuing to allow terrorists to cross its borders into Iraq to wreak havoc on Iraqi society, which may be a serious complaint or may be a justification to criticize Syria, which has always been in certain neocons’ sights.

And, of course, there were the dozens of attacks in Baghdad Wednesday, which killed at least 160 people, most of them Iraqi civilians, many of them day laborers. A tape from purported Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi implied strongly that the attacks were retaliation for the U.S.-Iraqi government offensive in Tal Afar.

So the insurgency is hardly under control. And we should be honest. Withdrawing U.S. troops could well lead, in the short run, to intensified violence or various forces in the country struggling to seize power by violence in what could be a precursor to civil war. It is also more than possible that Iraq will not survive as one country with its present borders – though it’s difficult to discern what is sacrosanct about Iraq’s current "unity" or borders.

Iraq for Iraqis

Nonetheless, it is time – it is long past time – to pull Americans out of harm’s way in Iraq and let Iraqis sort out these matters for themselves. Although a withdrawal would be interpreted in some quarters as a victory for al-Qaeda, there are enough developments suggesting Iraqi self-governance – I suspect not even the administration expects anything resembling genuine democracy, though there are some Iraqis who might move in that direction – is becoming a reality that withdrawal could be accomplished in a face-saving way.

Heaven knows there are plenty of problems with the proposed Iraqi constitution, which, if you want to be strictly legalistic about it, is probably not legally presented according to the transitional laws that made provision for it. But a recent Iraqi opinion poll done by the Iraqi Center for Development and International Dialogue showed that 88 percent of polled Iraqis intend to participate in the referendum on the constitution scheduled for Oct. 30. The poll also showed that 30 percent of Iraqis support a "federalist" system and 84 percent say they believe in women’s rights.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that democracy and the rule of law are right around the corner. But it does show a remarkably high level of interest in the constitution as a step on the road to self-governance. They may make a hash of it, many Iraqis seem to believe, but it is time for the occupation to end so they can make their own hash rather than being force-fed American hash.

Add to this the near certainty that, even though Iraqi civilians have increasingly been the target of terrorist/insurgent/guerrilla/whatever attacks, the presence of U.S. troops still occupying Iraq and still calling many of the political shots is an important recruiting tool for the insurgents. The Americans are harder targets than are Iraqi civilians, so the bad guys will certainly attack Iraqi civilians when they can, but most of those terrorists would really prefer to kill Americans. There may be strife and conflict after the Americans leave, but it will be more difficult for the most violent insurgent factions to recruit new people.

It is almost certainly the case that the U.S. military, which has never been all that keen on "nation-building" as a mission, would like to leave Iraq sooner rather than later, which is why we see so many leaks from unidentified "high military officials" to the effect that the rough plan is to start pulling troops out next spring or maybe earlier. As support for the Bush policy of occupation diminishes among the general public, it is more important than ever to make our case.

I suspect we’ll be more effective if we de-emphasize the "America is evil" rhetoric in favor of "America made a mistake we need to correct," but I can’t control what others do. Now is the time for those who question this ill-advised war to make their voices heard. I suspect the seeds will fall on more fertile soil than we have had in a long time.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).