Debate over US-Iraq treaty confirms both the US’s ambitions and the limits of its power

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Jumada' al-Akhirah 27, 1429 2008-07-01


by Iqbal Siddiqui (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1429)

The US is facing two deadlines in its dealings with the government in Iraq over the proposed “security treaty” by which it hopes to legitimise its continued occupation of the country. The first is the expiry of the UN mandate to remain in the country, which expires on December 31. The second is the end of the Bush presidency, which will effectively end when his successor is confirmed in the presidential polls in November. The neo-cons surrounding Bush are desperate both to secure their interests in the future before having to hand power to another administration, and to secure something they can claim as a success as part of their legacy.

Details of the proposed treaty have been leaking out slowly for several months, since US president George W. Bush and Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki announced the Declaration of Principles setting out its broad outlines in September last year. This was followed by months of detailed negotiations behind the scenes, with no official documents made public, but details leaked by various parties and intensely discussed in political circles. These suggest that the terms demanded by the US are humiliating: open-ended Iraqi approval for up to 58 military bases in Iraq; immunity from prosecution for both US forces and “contractors” (i.e. mercenaries) working for them; freedom to arrest Iraqis at will without reference to Iraqi authorities and without being answerable to Iraqi courts; freedom to launch military operations against any target from Iraqi bases without reference to the Iraqi government; and total control over Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet. These “security” provisions are of course over and above the control over Iraqi resources and economic activity that the US is trying to secure through the proposed oil and gas legislation and other economic agreements, and are rightly interpreted as effectively reducing Iraq’s status to that of a colony or a protectorate, rather than an independent sovereign state. This has, of course, been the ultimate objective of the US invasion and occupation all along, despite all the pious words about freedom, democracy and the rights of the Iraqi people.

The issue of the security agreement burst on to the public consciousness in May, when Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari announced that it would be finalised by the end of July. This brought the matter into the open, and numerous public figures raised their voices to prevent the Maliki government from accepting them. Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani -- still massively influential, despite his quietist reluctance to engage in politics -- urged the government to protect Iraq’s independence, sovereignty, and national and economic interests. Muqtada al-Sadr accused theUS of trying to cement its occupation of the country and said that his militia would maintain their resistance activities against US-led forces. His statement came as government forces were cracking down on his fighters in al-Amarah, a Sadrist stronghold in the Maysan province. Sadr suggested that the crackdown was an attempt to divert attention from the debate over the security agreement. Sunni politicians who the US had hoped would support the agreement have been forced to moderate their position in the face of anger from their own community in Iraq, as ulama, community leaders and commentators have joined in the rejection of the pact, raising hopes that the issue could reunite Iraqis against the common enemy after the sectarian divisions of recent years.

Whether the issue will be settled by the end of this month is doubtful; few such deadlines have been met in Iraq recently. What is clear, however, is that the US is determined to secure its interests, and that the Maliki government knows that it cannot survive without continued US support. But Maliki and all other Iraqi politicians know that no agreement that is acceptable to the US will be seen as anything but humiliating by Iraq’s people. Some compromise will be reached, which all will try to present as securing their interests, but it is unlikely that the anger of the Iraqi people will be assuaged for long. In Iran, the Shah’s granting of extraterritorial rights to the US contributed to the resentment against his rule that fuelled the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In Iraq, the similar terms of this agreement are likely to provide the basis of political resentment and disorder in future years, and could yet have a similarly revolutionary impact. The only question is whether there is any leadership in the country capable of providing the clear vision and principled leadership that its people deserve, and without which continued disorder is more likely than any improvement in the situation.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the hope was that a strong, stable and pro-American Iraqi government would secure their interests in the region, which -- as Alan Greenspan famously confirmed -- are primarily about oil. Having failed to establish such a regime, the US is now trying to secure American interests as best it can by imposing this agreement on the weak and unreliable government that is all it has succeeded in establishing. But the real power in Iraq rests with its people, and their anger at what the US has done to their country is likely to prevent the US from maintaining its presence in Iraq for much longer, regardless of any agreements by which it tries to legitimise its role.

Bush’s legacy is bound to be one of failure, and whoever succeeds him in November is likely to seek radically different solutions to rescue the situation, for example the imposition of another dictatorial strongman in place of the pseudo-democracy that is proving altogether too concerned with the wishes of Iraq’s people.

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