The U.S. anti-war movement, which has been stalled recently due to much organizational and political confusion and disagreement, has largely lost touch with the changing political and economic dynamics in Iraq. When we lose touch with these realities, we lose touch with our ability to organize effectively, to strategize victories, and to be the allies we want to be to the Iraqi people.
Written by: Ryan Harvey, with help from TJ Buonomo
One of those realities is that U.S. troops are largely no longer patrolling Iraqi streets, breaking down doors and detaining people, standing at checkpoints with their guns pointing into cars, or walking through markets waiting to be attacked. For the average U.S. service-member, the war in Iraq may be nearing it’s end.
Alongside the waning U.S. presence, violence rates are dropping dramatically, both for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Though this comes as a a relief to many Iraqis, the recent wave of attacks in Baghdad and the unrest surrounding the recent elections hints at a fragile peace. “The conditions on the ground are rapidly deteriorating in Iraq” says Iraqi political analyst and peace activist Raed Jarrar. After last month’s general election, there is a dramatic spike in violence and growing threats to the security and political stability of the country.
Muqtada al Sadr exposed this weak political situation with a referendum on the election, in which neither of the main candidates won more than 10 percent of the vote. Though it was non-binding, the vote shows massive organized opposition to the current government.
Part of this opposition is due to Iraq’s economic policies being largely shaped by the United States and it’s economic institutions. Indeed, the relative calm being experienced right now is not due to Iraqi victory, rather, it is due to partial U.S. victory; they achieved part of their strategy in Iraq. The new Iraqi economy looks a lot like what the U.S. likes when it rearranges a country’s economy through IMF-imposed debt-repayment schemes, with heavy privatization and profit-sharing agreements for multinationals. Energy contracts that many believe are the reason behind the invasion are now starting to blossom, and the U.S. has positioned itself for a long stay in the Middle East. While the U.S. won some of what it wanted in Iraq, the Iraqi people lost big. They suffer from multiple angles. Hundreds of thousands are dead, with some studies showing that figure at over one million, and millions of refugees who survived the war continue to live a dismal life in Syria and Jordan, or on the outskirts of their own country.
Iraqi workers continue struggling to organize in a country where unions are banned and where decisions about who owns the natural resources of the country are decided in the boardrooms and offices of the United States and Western Europe. Water, if it’s available, is still largely not fit for human consumption. Large areas of the major cities remain in ruins, electricity is scarce, and the poisonous residue of Depleted Uranium continues to soak into the topsoil of the agrarian towns outside of them.
The “Surge” and the Awakening Councils
In light of all of this suffering, things are beginning to improve. The first step to this is the end of the violence caused by the U.S. war, and that is starting to occur. The dropping level of violent attacks began in June of 2007, when the U.S. “surge” troops were in place.Violence levels across the board have fallen since then. At the time of this writing, 27 U.S. service-members have died in Iraq this year, compared to nearly 500 in the same time-period in 2007. Last year, 150 U.S. service-members were killed in Iraq, compared to 904 in 2007. Casualty rates among Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians have fallen in the same periods, signifying a general, significant decrease in violence.
Pro-war voices say the Surge is the reason behind this drop, that more troops means less violence. They use this argument to justify the current surge in Afghanistan too. But something more significant happened at the same time as the Surge: the U.S. began paying huge amounts of money directly to insurgent groups to fight Al Qaeda. These groups, like the Awakening Councils in Anbar and their Baghdad counterparts, the Sons of Iraq, had been fighting the U.S., but were now working “side by side” with them. It is estimated that at least 100,000 fighters were paid through this program.
The Awakening Councils were the result of Sunni militias and insurgent groups breaking ranks with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a group linked to the wider Al Qaeda and thus well-funded by it’s global network. The break came largely as result of Al Qaeda’s attempts to organize politically in Anbar, thus challenging the tribal structure that many insurgent leaders presided over, as well as Al Qaeda’s attempts to control smuggling routes that were maintained by them. When this threat became greater than the threat posed by U.S. troops, these groups made a loose alliance with the U.S. to fight Al Qaeda.
These forces drove Al Qaeda out of many towns and cities across central Iraq and brought a close to the horrors of 2006-2007, when civil-war raged and over 50,000 Iraqi civilians died.
The Iraqi government opposed the Awakening strategy because it would disrupt the government’s hold on power, but the U.S. needed it to stem the tide of a growing insurgency, to begin the process of ending a very unpopular war. And that part of the strategy worked.
However, in 2009 the payments from the U.S. were shifted to the Iraqi government, who only agreed to pay 20 percent of the salaries of the Awakening Councils. Then they issued arrest warrants for hundreds of Sunni leaders involved in them, ushering in a new era of political fighting. In 2009, the Sons of Iraq saw repression from the police and Army, and on April 4th of this year, up to 25 members of the Sons of Iraq and their family members were found handcuffed and shot to death in Albusaifi, south of Baghdad. Their killers were wearing Iraqi Security Forces uniforms.
While the Sunni militias were being organized against Al Qaeda in the northern cities, the Iraqi Army invaded Basra, which was largely controlled by Shi’ite political/religious leader Muqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, Iraq’s largest “insurgent group” with 60,000 soldiers. The invasion was an attempt to show that the Iraqi military was capable of pulling off it’s own offensives. And though Basra is a Shi’ite dominated city, it has always been one of the secular capitals of Iraq. It is also one of the bases of the Iraqi Oil Union, a powerful and radical labor force fighting against the forced-privatization of public resources. Many residents were pleased that the Mahdi Army’s position had been broken by the invasion, but few welcomed a British and U.S. presence.
The Mahdi Army launched a large offensive around Baghdad and in other cities at the same time, targeting U.S., British, and Iraqi Security Forces, but also many Sunnis. This is another reason Sunnis teamed up with U.S. forces when they did. In the end, the Mahdi Army was pushed out of Basra, but al Sadr continued to hold a large influence over Iraqi politics, which was noted recently with his massive “shadow vote”.
Casualty Rates and the SOFA
The way in which Iraq is controlled by the U.S. is hidden by layers of long documents and well-disguised rhetoric. As the Surge was running it’s course, the U.S. and Iraqi governments were discussing a “treaty” that would establish long-term agreements on U.S. access to military bases, ports, and other infrastructure, as well as legal agreements governing American war-policy in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, was the product of these discussions.
The SOFA’s main point is that it dictates the terms by which U.S. troops will leave Iraq. It also solidified a U.S. withdrawal from the towns and cities of Iraq by mid-2009. Alongside the SOFA, the Strategic Framework Agreement was signed, outlining the economic conditions for a long-term U.S. presence. This document sets the stage for Iraq’s entry into the U.S.-proposed Middle East Free Trade Area Initiative as well as the World Trade Organization, the opening of its farmlands to U.S. agribusiness, and the opening of its economy to U.S. supervision.
The SFA, like the SOFA, restricts the U.S. to following the Iraqi government’s lead, but both documents can be cancelled by either party at will by “written notice”. Perhaps these are temporary shows of cooperation by the U.S.?
Either way, for many Iraqis the late-2008 ratification of the SOFA was the legal side of a contentious fight to get the U.S. to leave their country. Insurgent groups dedicated to a U.S. withdrawal began lowering their weapons, but didn’t turn them in. Some are waiting to see if the U.S. actually leaves. Civilian deaths started to drop in the summer of 2008, but haven’t changed too much overall since (88 in Sept 2009, compared to between 1,000 and 3,000 a month in 2006/2007). 4,644 civilians died violently in Iraq in 2009, according to the 2009 Iraq Body Count.
For the U.S., it was a well-worded allowance to access Iraqi resources and territory and to keep a U.S. military presence there for some time to come. And it was a needed calm for the U.S. at a time when anti-war feelings were running high among Americans, especially among members of the U.S. military. That year veterans had organized the Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan hearings in Washington D.C. that saw over 100 veterans testify to the horrors of these wars.
For the Iraqi government, the SOFA was pandering to U.S. economic aims to guarantee security for a weak state and an increasingly unpopular leader.
Either way, violence rates, including the number of Iraqis killed by U.S. and coalition forces, started dropping significantly, “with a total of 64 reported by Dec 25th, 2009” (compared to 594 in 2008). Deaths in the ranks of the Iraqi Army were down from 519 in 2008 to 103 in 2009. June 30 2009, when U.S. troops were mostly withdrawn to bases outside of the cities, is the beginning of the greater decrease in violence. This is because the U.S. wasn’t really present on the streets anymore.
In August of this year, in accordance with the SOFA, U.S. “Combat Forces” will be withdrawn from the country completely. The term “Combat Forces” is deceptive; a lot of what goes on day-to-day in the Iraq occupation is considered “non-combat”, including policing operations, house searches, detainments, patrols, guard duty at bases, and more.
But what’s shifted recently, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities, is that Iraqi Security Forces are taking on most of this work, sometimes with direct American support, but often and increasingly without. Iraqi Security Force deaths since the June 30th deadline have not changed too much however, indicating a general continuance of attacks directed at those carrying out the work of the U.S.
The changing of the guard does not necessarily mean an end to the U.S. combat role. If history has told us anything, this is the beginning of a long stay in the Middle East. The SOFA is a near-photocopy of the Anglo-Iraqi Treat of 1930 (See SOFA here and Anglo-Iraqi Treaty here), which secured British hegemony in Iraq, and Britain hung around for decades after it was signed.
A key lesson from Britain’s history in Iraq lies in the SOFA’s agreement that the Iraqi government can ask the U.S. to intervene in something to “provide security” for it. This arrangement means an unpopular Iraqi government can call on the U.S. to “support it”, in other words, to repress democratic movements against it, much like the British did during their 1941 re-invasion. It gives the U.S. the ability to determine, with it’s Iraqi counterparts, when the Iraqi state is meeting the conditions for it’s own self-rule.
Iraqi political analyst Raed Jarrar writes that “the main problem with a condition-based withdrawal plans is that it creates an equation where deteriorating conditions lead to an extension of the military occupation”, while much of that deterioration has been caused specifically by the U.S. presence. It’s a recipe for an open-ended war, and it is being paid for with the lives of countless Iraqis and over 4,000 American service-members.
Debt, Oil, adn the Economic Occupation
The families and friends of these U.S. service-members, and the tens of millions of Iraqis who are suffering from 8 years of war, have thus been praying for peace for years.
Now their calls are finally being heard for the wrong reasons. While those on both sides of the front-lines of this war were bearing the brunt, investors were in the background cutting deals that would make them very rich. War brings massive profits, and they cashed in. But unpopular wars start to become burdens. In 2007 and 2008, the investors began praying for peace too, but they are not interested in the same peace as those who suffer daily as a result of these occupations. The relative calm means that western investment schemes will start to turn-around, and a long-line of U.S. corporations will start getting fat contracts centering around the energy sector.
So the investors will get some quick cash from the relative calm. As violence levels have fallen, the price of Iraqi bonds has risen. These bonds are essentially loans made by private-investors to Iraq’s state, and their interest-rates have doubled in the last few years. According to MIT economist Michael Greenstone, “The only thing the bond market cares about is whether a functioning Iraqi government will be there in the future to make the promised interest payments.” They are only interested in getting their money, and Iraq’s debt is huge.
Iraq still owes a lot of money to the rich countries and their institutions, who are playing a heavy role in making sure they will reap profit in post-war Iraq. When The Paris Club, a group of rich countries led by the U.S., announced it would drop 80 percent of Iraq’s debt, they passed it off as a gesture of solidarity. But this “debt-relief” would only come if Iraq accepted one of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) infamous Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).
The stipulations of this SAP are standard for any predatory IMF loan throughout the world. 30 percent of the 40 billion dollar Paris Club debt was dropped immediately, another 30 was dropped in 2005 after Iraq officially entered the agreement with the IMF, and another 20 was dropped in 2008 as Iraq began meeting the qualifications set out by the IMF. And what are those qualifications? According to a 2009 interview with Iraqi vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi, arguing against the general IMF stipulations, “The policy of (the World Bank and IMF) is that the economy must be 100 percent left to the private sector”.
This 80 percent “debt-relief” has still left Iraq with the other 20 percent of it’s debt to the Paris Club countries, around 10 billion dollars. That’s as large as other countries that are held in economic bondage by the IMF, like El Salvador, Jamaica, Guatemala, and Kenya. And the typical trend is to cut social programs and increase investment towards the export markets, which rarely benefits the general population.
So the prospects of the average Iraqi seeing any kickback from this “debt-relief” are bleak. Iraq suffers from a 15-20 percent unemployment rate, and 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. It is also one of only nine countries in the world that has neither mandatory severance payments or unemployment benefits. And a Saddam-era law banning unions is still on the books (one of the few the U.S. strategically left in place). The IMF’s role in Iraq is not to help the Iraqi people get back on their feet, but to facilitate the passing of Iraq’s entire economy over to private-companies, starting with the oil.
The main mechanism the financial vultures created to suck Iraq dry of it’s chief export, and the majority of it’s economic power, is the Hydrocarbon Law (“The Oil Law”). The Oil Law was first proposed in 2007, but still sits awaiting ratification. Iraqi government has not signed off on it because it is very controversial in Iraqi society, especially among the trade unions.
The Iraqi unions oppose both the corporate-backed Oil Law and the IMF’s agenda. In a unified statement at the beginning of an unofficial meeting with World Bank/IMF representatives 6 months ago, Iraqi labor leaders expressed their opposition to the general policies of the IMF in Iraq;
“The Iraqi government authorities have not consulted with trade unions, or asked us to participate in the drafting these policies, or in their implementation. We pointedly condemn this lack of consultation, and demand inclusion in all future meetings and to be contacted directly [by the International Financial Institutions, IFIs] despite our fundamental position against IFI programs and policies.”
The Oil Law puts Iraqi officials in the Executive Branch in charge of deciding on what types of contracts to sign with foreign oil companies, taking future decision-making on contracts out of the hands of the Legislative branch. This will make it easier for foreign oil companies and their governments to secure lucrative Profit Sharing Agreements, or PSA’s, which they prefer. These PSAs ensures profits for big business and give a disproportionate amount of money to the private-sector: If the Oil Law goes through, two thirds of Iraq’s oil fields, previously state-run, will be controlled by multinationals.
In this way, the Iraqi government is nowhere near sovereign, as it’s economy is largely controlled by international forces. The oil policies that have turned into the proposed Oil Law were designed in the United States and England by a team of Iraqi exiles and U.S. specialists selected by the State Department. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill’s recent quotes to BusinessWeek highlighted this imperial relationship; “The last government (of Prime Minister Maliki) did good things on oil resources. I want to see that continue.”
The Oil Law is set to be finalized this year. Future battles in Iraq may well be between the organized unions and a U.S.-backed Iraqi State.
Anti-Wat to Economic Justice: Making the Transition
The question for those of us organizing for peace in Iraq is, can we continue our solidarity with the Iraqi people even after U.S. forces withdrawal? Can we be there for Iraqis as they deal with the slow and grueling repercussions of U.S. invasion? Can we devise and carry out methods of reconciliation that empower and support Iraqis while continuing an anti-war dialogue in the U.S., especially among U.S. troops and veterans? Can we take the lessons from Iraq and apply them to Afghanistan, and future wars?
“Our responsibility”, In the words of Raed Jarrar, “starts by ending the 20-year war, but it doesn’t end there.” As the U.S. presence mutates into a more sleek monster, our work is to challenge U.S. economic offensives, and to follow through with reparations for the people of Iraq.
The transition from an anti-war movement to a movement for reparations and economic justice could take many shapes.
It could mean teaming up with other organizations and movements to build a strong and forceful campaign focused specifically around IMF and World Bank policy in Iraq; These institutions are the gateway for the corporate-offensive that is beginning its “surge” in Iraq.
It could mean getting behind the Iraqi union movement, like US Labor Against the War has done, and helping promote the voices and demands of Iraqi workers.
For those of us in the anti-war veteran and service-member organizations, it could mean continuing to initiate dialogue with the military community around the injustices done by U.S. foreign policy.
It could mean putting efforts towards the above while also putting work into opposing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and doing similar follow-through afterwards.
It could mean organizing reconciliation trips with veterans and civilians to hear first-hand the needs and demands of the Iraqi people, and building long-term networks of solidarity between them that could support movements for real sovereign decision-making in Iraq.
It could mean building long-term organizations out of the short-term ones we’ve formed in recent years, to build networks that can effectively challenge future U.S. military policies from the get-go.
If we can transition into a movement that takes on some of this work, we may be able to establish bonds that diffuse the massive tension between our peoples and establish political infrastructure for a peaceful Iraq. If we can’t, we may well deal with the blowback from the U.S. invasion for years to come.
The decision on how to move forward lies with us.