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Iraq and the Problems of Pulling Out

Just when you thought we might finally pull out, the President is surging. The last time Bush fils dipped into the Viagra and pumped 20,000 troops into Iraq (for the last round of elections in fall ’05, both the number of daily attacks and U.S. casualties spiked. Since then those daily attacks have nearly doubled; they’re now approaching the 200 mark. The surge is mostly a domestic offensive, designed to get the Dems to commit to the war. While there’s some hope they’ll resist the urge, how the Dems—much less the Left—would finally quit Iraq remains unclear.

The Dems have already introduced nearly a dozen bills on withdrawal, from Murtha’s welcome but vacuous resolution—which calls simply for withdrawal at “the earliest practicable date” (hardly a restriction for an administration that debates the meaning of “torture”)—to Lynn Woolsey’s more comprehensive proposal, much of which is adapted from that of George McGovern (which we’ll get to shortly) and which sets a six-month deadline. Predictably, as of January 24th, Murtha’s resolution had more than 90 co-sponsors to Woolsey’s 25. Out in the streets, the anti-war camp is finally showing signs of life, with a march timed to remind the Dems why they were elected. But UFPJ’s website still offers nothing more than five measly paragraphs on withdrawal, which have nothing substantive to say about how it might be done. MoveOn doesn’t even go that far.

So if the Left is bereft of original ideas, we have to look elsewhere to see what withdrawal might look like. If the Iraq Study Group’s report disappointingly declared that “the point is not for the United States to set timetables or deadlines for withdrawal,” it still suggests we could all get some rest by early 2008. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, despite the ISG’s explicit warning that its recommendations “should not be separated or carried out in isolation,” the only one the President has adopted is the surge. And of the report’s 79 boldfaced recommendations, the surge isn’t even granted bullet-point status.

Led by Co-Chairs Lee Hamilton (formerly Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission) and the ubiquitous James Baker (Secretary of State for Bush pere), the ISG’s report is a laundry list of shockingly reasonable recommendations: no permanent bases, a declaration that the U.S. does not seek to control Iraq’s oil, amnesty for the insurgency, an impartial disarmament program not overseen by the U.S., and a little more sweet talk with everyone from radical Shiite leaders Moqtada al Sadr and the Ayatollah Sistani to the leaders of Syria and Iran. This insistence on dealing with Iraq in a regional context should’ve been the ISG’s most instructive contribution to the debate.

George McGovern—the Democratic standard bearer during the quagmire referendum of ’72—and former diplomat William Polk have issued their own slightly more radical proposal, and we’re already behind schedule: withdrawal was to begin on December 31st and end by June 30th, 2007. McGovern and Polk divide their recommendations into two tiers, the first being essential and the second—mostly a slew of reparations in varying forms, including the daring statement that “the U.S. should not object to the Iraqi government voiding all oil contracts”—optional. Their six-month deadline for withdrawal seems modest compared to their recommendation to disband the Iraqi army, which in their estimate is a hopelessly repressive (and inept) outfit.

Having dispensed with the army, McGovern and Polk are effectively relying on the Iraqi police to keep the peace on the morning after. The ISG report is not quite this delusional, stating that: “Iraqi police cannot control crime, and they routinely engage in sectarian violence, including the unnecessary detention, torture, and targeted execution of Sunni Arab civilians.” In early October, an entire brigade—as many as 1,200 officers—was suspended on suspicion of kidnapping and mass murder. A Pentagon report in December cited the complicity of the police as “a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions” which have taken the lives of around 3,000 Iraqis every month since June.

While not long ago the army was viewed as a more neutral force than the police, it too has recently shown signs of being co-opted: in one central Iraqi province, the army commander was reportedly chosen by Shiite militants, to whom he then effectively handed over control.

Nonetheless, the ISG suggests that about 18 months should be enough time to reform these deeply compromised institutions. But the reality is that leaving the country to the police and the army is to invite ethnic warfare on a mass scale. If it hasn’t begun already.

The shit hit the fan in Balad last October. On Friday the 13th, 17 Shiite farmworkers in a small town just across the Tigris from this Shiite enclave on Sunni turf were kidnapped and beheaded. The Shiite leaders back home placed a call to Moqtada al Sadr. Sadr’s Shiite militiamen didn’t waste a second. Balad’s mosques blared warnings for Sunnis to get out of town within 48 hours. Checkpoints appeared. Sunni men were wrenched from their families. By Sunday there were 80 bodies in the morgue, and word of more in the streets. Shiite militias were going door to door: now the Sunnis had two hours. By the time the Iraqi army showed up to put a stop to the violence, the Washington Post reported that there were only four or five Sunni families left in Balad. This is ethnic cleansing, and this is the civil war in Iraq; not a systematic campaign but a series of contingent, reciprocal massacres, a chain reaction sporadically building toward critical mass.

UNHCR, the UN’s refugee organization, ballparks the number of internally displaced persons within Iraq at 500,000 over the last year alone. Their current estimates project 40-50,000 Iraqis will abandon their homes each month. This is a clear signal that ethnic cleansing has already begun on a fairly substantial scale. For McGovern and Polk to simply say that there will be “a certain amount of chaos” after the US leaves amounts to the crudest political salesmanship.

Are U.S. forces, in some perverse way, keeping the peace, or at least staving off a paroxysm of blood and agony? In The End of Iraq, Peter Galbraith, U.S. ambassador to Croatia during the Bosnian conflict, argues that the only way out is to embrace what seems inevitable: partition.

The End of Iraq is as much a memoir as a policy proposal. During the late 1980s, Galbraith, then senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, witnessed the Anfal—Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds—firsthand, thus making him a determined supporter of the Kurdish cause. Which explains how he came to finish his book while enjoying the hospitality of Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani; Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (Barzani’s rival for the Kurdish leadership) and Ahmed Chalabi are also named as close acquaintances.

Such connections, as one might suspect, leave Galbraith with something of a blind spot: while he concedes at one point that “political reforms are needed in a region where two main parties have dominated politics for decades,” there’s little trace in his book of the reportedly corrupt fiefdom that goes by the name of the “Kurdistan Regional Government.” But Galbraith makes no effort to conceal his deep sympathy for the Kurds. He’s an advocate for them, and he makes a compelling case.

In fact, Galbraith helped the Kurdish leadership draft a constitutional proposal that nearly gave US Viceroy Jerry Bremer an aneurysm, but eventually made it into the constitution anyway: all oil fields currently in commercial production would be managed by the central government, but any future oil fields would be controlled exclusively by the region in which they were located. The ISG report denounces this idea in no uncertain terms: “No formula that gives control over revenues from future fields to the regions or gives control of oil fields to the regions is compatible with national reconciliation.”

But national reconciliation is not on Galbraith’s agenda:

Looking at Iraq’s dismal eighty-year history, it should be apparent that it is the effort to hold Iraq together that has been destabilizing. Pursuit of a coerced unity has led to endless violence, repression, dictatorship, and genocide.…Iraq’s Kurds will never reconcile to being part of Iraq. Under these circumstances, I believe a managed amicable divorce is in the best interests of the peoples of Iraq…

To Galbraith, partition is a fait accompli: the Kurdish assembly even passed a law denying the Iraqi Army access to the Kurdish region without the assembly’s approval. Galbraith is willing to go so far as to argue for a permanent US military presence in Kurdistan, which he reports the Kurds would welcome. With Kurdish secession thus guaranteed, the Sunni and Shia could then cautiously be encouraged to carve up the rest of the country.

It almost sounds manageable, until you consider that entire cities such as Balad would have to be emptied of the people who have called them home. The Sunnis, whose territory would leave them deprived of the oil that’s Iraq’s economic lifeblood, would have little incentive to go quietly. The Kurds would march on Kirkuk, a city along their region’s southern border which includes the north’s major oil deposits (a referendum on whether the city will be part of the Kurdish region is mandated to occur before the end of 2007). No amount of military force could provide a prophylactic to the violence.

Even if partition could really be negotiated in ink instead of blood, McGovern and Polk raise a crucial objection: “The notion that we can grandly adjust the way Iraqis live is one of the delusions that got us into the Iraq quicksand in the first place… People everywhere, and certainly in Iraq, believe self-determination is a fundamental right.” For their part, the ISG observes that the U.S. simply cannot be seen to dismember what was once a major Arab power.

The last possibility would seem to be a weak federalism of the sort Senator Joe Biden has proposed. Under this scenario, also endorsed by the ISG, the central government would be given exclusive control over oil revenues, which would then be divided among the regions (effectively along ethnic lines) in proportion to population. This would give the Sunnis some incentive to remain part of Iraq, if they could be convinced to accept a truly proportionate share (Biden suggests 20%) and the threat of a violent partition seemed serious enough. The problem is that the constitution is effectively a done deal; while currently under review by a parliamentary commission, the Shiite and Kurdish parties that dominate the parliament have little incentive to cut the Sunnis in on the oil. Overturning Galbraith’s provision would require once again dismissing the sovereignty of Iraq’s government.

Withdrawal—surrendering to the Iraqi people, if they even exist anymore as such, the right to self-determination—is a fitting end to a crusade waged in part in the name of democracy. Short of imposing a new arrangement on oil, Iraq will almost certainly be torn apart by the centrifugal forces that have engulfed the country, and even then there’s no guarantee that such an agreement would stall the cycle of violence. It’s up to the Dems to be honest with the American people about the probable consequences. The Iraqi “government” has little control over its armed forces and less over its borders, collects little in the way of taxes, and provides no services to the Iraqi people, its officials bunkered down in the Green Zone. When the U.S. withdraws, that “government” will most likely evaporate overnight. The pull-out method has never been reliable, and what we are seeing is the “birth of a new Middle East.” Brace yourself.


Nicholas Jahr


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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