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Quagmire Iraq: They Must and Cannot Go PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Thursday, 29 June 2006 09:11
Quagmire Iraq: They Must and Cannot Go

- Patrick Seale - The disastrous Iraq war has become a grave political embarrassment for President George W. Bush and his British ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair. It is now the most fundamental issue determining their political fortunes. In Britain, Iraq has ruined Blair's reputation. In the United States, the war is so unpopular that Bush's Republicans face the unwelcome prospect of substantial Democratic gains at the mid-term elections on 7 November, when the whole of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate will be up for re-election.


Patrick Seale reflects on the Iraq dilemma of the United States and Britain: They want to stop the tragic disaster of death and destruction they have wrought, but they still want to hang on to their "fundamental interests" in the oil rich, strategically located country.

The Iraq Debate: To Stay or to Go?

Patrick Seale

Agence Global
June 29, 2006

? 2006 Patrick Seale
[Republished at PEJ News with permission of Agence Global]

Bush and Blair would dearly like to escape from the Iraq quagmire -- but only if they can claim victory. So, what to do? The answer would seem to be a phased 'stealthy' withdrawal -- just enough to silence critics of the war, but not so much as to risk losing control of a strategically-important oil-rich country.

This ambivalence explains the leaders' double-talk. Their line is that Coalition forces will withdraw once Iraq can take charge of its own security. In Bush's words: "As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down." Or, in Blair's almost identical language (on a visit to Baghdad on 22 May): "As they build up, we are able to draw down."

Almost in the same breath, however, both leaders deny that withdrawal will be either extensive or precipitous. "We'll keep the force levels there necessary to win," Bush said. A view dutifully echoed by Desmond Browne, Britain's new Defence Secretary: 'I fully expect us to maintain a military presence in Iraq for some time to come, and as long as we are needed," as he said in a speech in London on 24 May, "We should resist any talk of cutting and running, and any temptation to impose artificial deadlines. We must see the job through."

So, are they staying or are they going? The answer would seem to be both. They want to stop the haemorrhage of men, treasure and political capital, but without suffering unacceptable damage to their fundamental interests. The vast embassy the United States is building in Iraq -- a virtual city able to house 8,000 people -- does not suggest that Washington is contemplating anything like a full retreat.

In the meantime, there will be some thinning of the forces in the coming months. According to a classified Pentagon briefing, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General George W. Casey, has prepared a plan to shrink combat brigades in Iraq from 14 to 12 by this summer, then down to 10 by the end of the year, and to half that number by December 2007. Each combat brigade is about 3,500 men strong. The number of U.S. bases will decline from 69 at present to 11 by December 2007.

This will still leave very substantial U.S. forces in Iraq well beyond January 2009 when a new President takes office. But even a limited withdrawal will depend on the course of the war, on the successful expansion of the Iraqi army, and on political developments in Baghdad and Washington.

The U.S. Congress has just spent 48 hours debating the Iraq war -- the first such substantial debate since the vote authorising the war three years ago. The outcome in both the House and the Senate was an overwhelming vote against withdrawal. In the Senate, the Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee called any troop withdrawal "dangerous, reckless and shameless." "Withdrawal is not an option," he said. "Surrender is not a solution."

Republican Party strategists -- notably Karl Rove, Bush's key adviser on domestic politics -- seem to have decided that, in view of the looming mid-term elections, and indeed the president elections of 2008, it was best to maintain a tough, confident and aggressive posture over Iraq, while accusing the Democrats of defeatism and cowardice. When John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate, sponsored an amendment calling for a full withdrawal by July 2007, it was roundly defeated.

Lies have bedevilled the Iraq war from the very start and continue to do so -- lies about the reasons for the invasion, and lies about the reasons for staying or going.

The U.S.-led Coalition attacked Iraq in 2003 ostensibly to destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, portrayed at the time as a dangerous threat to mankind. This was a mere pretext for a long-prepared act of aggression. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy U.S. defence secretary at the time and a chief architect of the conflict, admitted that the alleged threat from Iraq's WMD had been chosen for "bureaucratic reasons" -- it was the only aim on which a coalition consensus could be built.

The real war aims, it is now widely agreed, were first, to secure control of Iraq's vast oil resources (together with the multi-billion dollar contracts needed to put Iraq back on its feet after 13 years of punitive sanctions) a view attributed to Vice-President Dick Cheney. If Iraq had possessed no oil, there would have been no invasion.

The second war aim was to smash Iraq as an Arab military power in order to remove any potential threat to Israel from the east, a view attributed to the powerful cabal of pro-Israeli neocons in the Bush administration. No doubt another motive for the war, shared by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld , was to teach the Arabs a lesson about America's military power and its determination to seek revenge for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This logic led to the disastrous American mistake of disbanding the Iraqi army (a decision taken, it is rumoured, under pressure from Israel and also from Kuwait, still traumatised by Iraq's 1990 invasion.)

The result was threefold: it created a security vacuum, which the United States has been unable to fill; it provided the insurgency with a large pool of battle-hardened troops; and it has led to the rise of sectarian militias, as each community has sought to defend itself in the murderous chaos which followed the collapse of the state.

Even before King Faisal I was crowned in Baghdad in 1921, the Iraqi army was already the backbone of the state created by the British out of three Ottoman provinces. (Interested readers might refer to A Soldier's Story, the Memoirs of Jafar Pasha al-Askari, London 2003.)

The army remained Iraq's key institution, in spite of repeated purges: in 1958, when the monarchy was overthrown; in 1963, following the first Ba'th coup; in 1968, when the Ba'th returned to power, and at various times by Saddam Hussein, notably during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war (1980-88). The army is probably the only institution that can hold Iraq together.

Having destroyed the Iraqi army, the U.S. and Britain are now trying to rebuild it under their authority, but it is uphill work. The strong nationalist elements in the insurgency -- as well, of course, as extremist Islamic groups, such as Al-Qaida -- want the Americans and the British out. It is unlikely that Iraq can be stabilised while American and British troops remain in control. Their presence de-legitimises the Iraq government and condemns it to be seen as a puppet of the West.

Not surprisingly, the debate in the United States about whether to stay or go is all about how it affects American interests, and hardly at all about the impact on Iraq itself. One argument is that America must stay in Iraq in order to honour the dead. A retreat, it is said, would mean that thousands of American troops had died for nothing. In other words, more have to die to justify the sacrifice of those already fallen!

Another argument is that a retreat would be fatal to America's image. It would send a message of weakness. Yet another argument is that to leave now would turn Iraq into a terrorist base -- or, in a phrase much favoured by the neocons, into a launching-pad for an Islamo-fascist empire -- with grave consequences for the future security of the United States.

A key reason -- usually unspoken -- is the fear that an American withdrawal would put Iraq's oil reserves, the second or third largest in the world, in the hands of America's competitors, notably China and Russia, or even its enemies, like Iran.

U.S. lawmakers who vociferously rejected the notion of withdrawal seem not to have considered that it might actually be good for Iraq, hastening the reconciliation necessary for national revival. Most Sunnis and Shi'is, and even a good many Kurds, want a sovereign, unified, peaceful and prosperous Iraq, able to take its rightful place in the region free from foreign occupation.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

? 2006 Patrick Seale

Released: 30 June 2006
Word Count: 1,408
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Advisory Release: 30 June 2006
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation and The American Prospect, as well as expert commentary by William Beeman, Richard Bulliet, Juan Cole, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 June 2006 09:11

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