Iraqi Protests Make Washington Squirm

After news that a “Day of Rage” in Iraq had not only drawn tens of thousands of Iraqis demanding jobs, clean water and electricity, but the wrath of security forces—at least 29 dead, a hundred journalists rounded up and beaten and police firing into crowds—one official had this to say:

“[The security forces] generally have not used force against peaceful protesters. …We support the Iraqi people’s right to freely express their political views, to peacefully protest and seek redress from their government.”

We would have expected this kind of mealy-mouthed response from nervous apologists for ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the confusing first days of his recent downfall. But this was Iraq, and the man who issued that statement was an American, Aaron Snipe, a U.S. embassy spokesman in Baghdad.

Surprising? Not really. Nor was it much of a shock when the State Department didn’t see fit to talk about Iraq’s “Day of Rage,” during its Feb. 25 press briefing; nor, when all the incidents and charges of violence began to surface in the news over the weekend, was Iraq invoked even once during Monday’s press event.

And why not? Because unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Arab states for which the United States has been blamed for giving dictators aid and comfort over the years, Washington is much more directly responsible for the conditions Iraqis are fighting against today. It helped now-embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into office in 2006, and strengthened his hand by using superior American firepower to pacify his enemies during the 2007 Surge. It armed and trained Iraqi security forces to look just like American security forces. It turned a blind eye to the building corruption, prisoner abuse, sex trafficking, and blatant civil injustice over the last two years, and now that those same security forces are turning against protesters and journalists, Washington is again, silent.

“If this had happened in Iran—it would have been all over the news,” said Dr. Adil Shamoo, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Iraqi ex-pat. Everyone remembers the shooting death of protester Neda Agha-Soltan at the hands of Iranian government militiaman in June 2009, but the recently murdered Iraqi demonstrators remain nameless numbers, added unceremoniously to the hundreds of thousands killed over the last decade in the war.

“This is the hypocrisy the Iraqis see, and read about,” said Shamoo, who spoke with last week.

“The hypocrisy of the United States is astounding,” charged investigative journalist Dahr Jamail, who also spoke with, “because they always claim that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was for liberation, and to bring civil rights and free speech to the Iraqi people, and then here they are fully backing the Maliki forces while they are killing protesters and beating and torturing journalists, while simultaneously backing revolutionaries, or at least claiming to back popular democratic uprisings, in all these other countries.”

Don’t think the Iraqis on the street aren’t seeing the same thing.

According to a March 4 Washington Post report:

“Witnesses in Baghdad and as far north as Kirkuk described watching last week as security forces in black uniforms, tracksuits and T-shirts roared up in trucks and Humvees, attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded, to army detention centers.

“Entire neighborhoods—primarily Sunni Muslim areas where residents are generally opposed to Maliki, a Shiite—were blockaded to prevent residents from joining the demonstrations. Journalists were beaten.

“‘Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him,’ said Salam Mohammed al-Segar, a human rights activist who was among those beaten during a sit-in. ‘The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now—it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state. But in reality?'”

According to one protester who was among a large group that had camped out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 20, special security forces rolled up in trucks and began “attacking the protesters, many of whom were asleep. They stabbed them in the buttocks, legs and faces with knives, beat them with sticks, plastic chairs and boots, and chased them into the darkened alleys and streets,” all while the regular army guarding the gathering stood aside and watched.

Maliki has denied involvement, instead blaming “other journalists, former members of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and al-Qaeda operatives.”

After more reports of beatings and detentions emerged last week, the White House managed to muster a “we are deeply troubled,” and left it at that.

The irony here is that the Iraqi people are, possibly for the first time, spontaneously exercising their rights en masse, across every ethnic and religious line—Sunni, Shia and Kurd—without the help of American operatives, military lock-downs or purple-finger press management. And the U.S. government’s response is, for all obvious reasons, muted at best.

“It is such an interesting time and probably the most hopeful for the Iraqi people,” said Jamail. Protests that had gathered steam on Facebook and inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, heated up again on Friday March 4, with thousands of Iraqis risking arrest or worse to converge on towns and cities across Iraq.

The demonstrations and the poor reaction from Maliki—on Friday, he was imposing new curfews, vehicle restrictions and attempting to wall-off cities from protesters –threaten to blow the whole charade of democracy in Iraq, and the western occupation itself. Adil and others insist that beneath the demands for food and basic services is a repudiation of the western forces that have thrown the country into civil unrest and have imposed a government that is bleeding Iraq of its resources and of its pride.

“There is a great deal of corruption, there is a great lack of infrastructure, and the people don’t feel they have gained anything (from the invasion),” said Shamoo. “In the coming years the United States is going to be very surprised about what Iraq is going to be like, and Iraqis aren’t going to forget the invasion and the muted response is only going to contribute further to the negative way they feel about the United States.”

Little has been said about the estimated 50,000 troops and untold number of American contractors still occupying the huge forward operating bases in the country. According to the current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) first put into place in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush and Maliki, the forces are only there to serve in an “advisory” capacity and then must withdraw completely by Dec. 31, 2011.

“The bottom line is most people in Iraq today cannot stand Maliki and see him as a pawn of the West, a pawn of the United States and of Great Britain,” insisted Jamail, who predicts that Maliki will try to keep U.S. forces in the country beyond the deadline—a move that will likely anger large segments of the country, including cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose own faction recently joined the government but has voiced support for the protesters and wants U.S. forces out of Iraq completely.

As Maliki becomes more repressive, any power sharing between his ruling party, the Sadrists and the minority Sunnis is at risk. Already, former prime minister Ayad Allawi has read the tea leaves and quit his position as chairman of the National Council on Strategic Policies, a role that was made up to placate him under a deal made after the last election. He and members of his Iraqiya bloc say the role was “an illusion” and completely undefined, and according to reports, he appears more interested in organizing around the pro-protester opposition than living out the charade.

Maliki’s behavior may also risk the fragile peace in places like Fallujah and Basra, even Baghdad. “If Maliki is going to drop the hammer he actually risks igniting the resistance. Right now there is a low-grade (armed) resistance … he would certainly ignite a broadening of that phenomenon,” said Jamail.

Unfortunately for the U.S., its fingerprints are all over this festering mess. The most overlooked aspect has been the “special security forces”that Maliki is reportedly deploying to “hunt down” protest organizers and journalists. Baghdad journalist Hadi al-Mahdi told The Washington Post he had been picked up by thugs at a restaurant, hauled off to the Iraqi Army’s 11th Division HQ, beaten, given electric shocks, threatened with rape. He assessed he “was in the care of an Army intelligence unit.” He was forced to sign a waiver that he had not been tortured and let go. On the way out he said he saw some American soldiers outside. “Look, ‘Look! Look at what happened to me!’ ” he recalled himself saying. The soldiers, he said, just “shook their heads.”

It all recalls a largely unappreciated investigative report written by Shane Bauer for The Nation in June 2009, not long before Bauer was captured and imprisoned by the Iranian government while hiking near the Iraqi/Iranian border on July 31, 2009.

Bauer’s “Iraq’s New Death Squad” details the American training of elite Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) that look, feel and act like American special operations.

“According to retired Lt. Col. Roger Carstens, US Special Forces are ‘building the most powerful force in the region.’ In 2008 Carstens, then a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was an adviser to the Iraqi National Counter-Terror Force, where he helped set up the Iraqi counterterrorism laws that govern the ISOF.

“‘All these guys want to do is go out and kill bad guys all day,’ he says, laughing. ‘These guys are shit hot. They are just as good as we are. We trained ’em. They are just like us. They use the same weapons. They walk like Americans.'”

According to Bauer, the ISOF was particularly instrumental in cracking down on Sadr City, the epicenter of Maliki’s Shia opposition and headquarters of Sadr’s armed Mahdi Army.

“There, the ISOF uses a policy of collective punishment, aimed at intimidating civilians, charges Hassan al-Rubaie, Sadrist member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee. ‘They terrorize entire neighborhoods just to arrest one person they think is a terrorist,’ he says. ‘This needs to stop.’

“US Special Forces advisers have done little to respond to allegations of abuse. Civilian pleas, public protests, complaints by Iraqi Army commanders about the ISOF’s actions and calls for disbanding it by members of Parliament have not pushed the US government to take a hard look at the force they are creating.”

Nor is it likely they, or anyone else here in Washington, are taking a hard look at it now.

But it’s just not just the extra-judicial crackdowns that are a black eye for us—it’s the political and economic situation, too. Remember, the U.S. sent its “best and brightest” to Iraq during the heady days of the imposed U.S. administration of Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Author Rajiv Chandrasekaran described it beautifully in his 2006 Imperial Life in the Emerald City, how Republican ham-n-eggers and young inexperienced ideologues from Washington think tanks like Heritage and AEI were parachuted in to set up ministries and health care systems. First, they were given “loyalty tests” and asked their stance on abortion. The Vice President’s daughter, Liz Cheney, was tasked with handling Iraq’s political transition. Grade A chiseler Bernard Kerik was sent to Baghdad to set up the police force, and a group of starry-eyed 20-somethings, later called “the brat pack,” found themselves administering the country’s $13 billion budget.

Everyone wanted to plant their seed but no one stuck around long enough to see what grew. Frankly, while it all sounds like the plot of a bad Peter Sellers movie, the sorry circus that passed for “transition” and “reconstruction” in Iraq became in time the corrupt, developmentally retarded bureaucracy that exists in Iraq today, and anyone who doesn’t see this is off his nut or works at the Heritage Foundation. Or both.

Meanwhile, the U.S. helped to design and pass a constitution for Iraq that blurs all the important lines—between religious and secular rule, women’s rights, and just as important, revenue and resource-sharing among the provinces and the central government. As Denise Natali for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace points out, there is an impasse over oil revenues affecting the health of the nation at-large and it “is rooted in the vagaries of the Iraqi constitution and the ethnic and sectarian interests it has encouraged.”

In other words, a resource-rich country remains poor as dirt because there are no clear lines of authority regarding how to extract the oil, refine it and export it, and then make sure revenues are distributed fairly to the people across every region in the form of local grants and civil services.

Which makes it so easy for corruption to flourish and for the basic needs of people to take a back seat. When columnist Fred Kaplan took a look at the text of the new constitution in 2005, he said, “it’s hard to see how Iraq’s constitution could serve either as a document that unifies the new Iraqi nation or as a clear guide to governance.” How prescient he was.

But not everyone is reacting to events in Iraq with sheepish silence. Neocon bruisers like Charles Krauthammer instead choose aggressive denial:

“[W]hat’s unmistakable is that to the Middle Easterner, Iraq today is the only functioning Arab democracy, with multiparty elections and the freest press… were Egypt to be as politically developed in, say, a year as is Iraq today, we would think it a great success.…

“America is leaving Iraq having taken no oil, having established no permanent bases, having left behind not a puppet regime but a functioning democracy.”

Krauthammer may be having, as Justin Raimondo calls it, his “Norma Desmond moment,” and is now sweeping down the staircase of punditry, seeing water fountains where there are water cannon dispersing protesters, and beaming families where there are widows and orphans marching for food. As Daniel Larison put it last week, perhaps it’s a defense mechanism.

Deeper yet, its possible that everyone here is recoiling from what is happening simply because we allowed Washington to create Iraq in some perverse mirror image of ourselves, and now the people are, in a way, fighting us. This is hard to take after a trillion dollars and thousands dead from war. But denial and ignorance won’t get us on the right side of history.

We can start on that by first being honest about our responsibility and coming out loud and clear against Maliki’s authoritarian behavior.

Then, as Jamail puts it so succinctly, “Get the hell out of the country immediately—respect the SOFA, agree to start breaking down the bases and start shipping some of the equipment home. Show them we are on the march, now.”

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.