US: The Iraq War is not over

Behind Obama’s troop withdrawal plan

Speaking to 8,000 assembled marines in North Carolina on 26 February, President Obama conveyed certainty: “Let me say this as plainly as I can — by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end”.

His new plan calls for a 19-month timeline to reduce the existing 142,000 troop level to a “residual” force of 50,000 “non-combat” troops. Further, Obama restated the goal, enshrined in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by Bush last fall, for a complete withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011.

While tens of thousands of US soldiers leaving Iraq will simply be redeployed to Afghanistan, the news has nonetheless been greeted with enthusiasm worldwide, including from many anti-war groups. There is widespread hope that, after six horrific years, this marks the beginning of the end of the Iraq War.

Control of Iraq and the entire oil-rich region has been a strategic centerpiece of US foreign policy for the last 60 years. Does Obama’s withdrawal plan represent an abandonment of those imperialist aspirations? Will Obama follow through on his promise to end the war?

“Total Defeat”

Underneath the propaganda about the “success” of the surge, by the end of 2008 the Bush administration had quietly formalized US defeat in Iraq.

In an article entitled ‘Total Defeat for U.S. in Iraq’, Patrick Cockburn, considered among the most authoritative Western journalists in Iraq, explained the “Status of Forces Agreement…signed after eight months of rancorous negotiations…is almost the opposite of the one which US started to negotiate in March. This is why Iran, with its strong links to the Shia parties inside Iraq, ended its previous rejection of it. The first US draft was largely an attempt to continue the occupation without much change…” (, 12/11/08)

On paper, SOFA mandates US troops to withdraw from cities into their bases by 30 June this year, and then completely leave Iraq and close all “permanent” bases in Iraq before 2012. All American military operations are to be authorized by Iraqi officials. Foreign contractors (mercenaries, etc.) will lose legal immunity.

While how far this agreement is implemented in practice remains to be seen, Cockburn correctly explains SOFA’s significance: “America’s bid to act as the world’s only super-power and to establish quasi-colonial control of Iraq, an attempt which began with the invasion of 2003, has ended in failure.”

Illusions of Stability

In reality, the inevitability of US defeat in Iraq – which Marxists predicted from the outset – was generally recognized within the US foreign policy establishment by 2006, when James Baker’s Iraq Study Group report urged phased withdrawal.

The reduction of violence in the last year (less than 400 killed per month recently, compared to up to 3,000 at the height of the civil war) has been achieved on the basis of American divide-and-rule tactics.

The US has temporarily co-opted much of the Sunni resistance through massive bribery and provision of arms to their militias in return for crushing Al Qaeda and formally joining the official military and police.

By the time the US troop surge fortified Baghdad with a maze of concrete blast barriers and checkpoints, the Shia-Sunni civil war had already left most neighborhoods ethnically cleansed. Of the 4.7 million refugees (one in five Iraqis) displaced during the civil war, less than 150,000 have returned to their homes, fearing sectarian violence alongside the lack of jobs, drinking water, electricity, and other basic necessities.

The increased US troop presence in the streets of Baghdad and other cities has simply put a lid on the situation, but resolved none of the underlying contradictions.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish aspiration for independence and control of the oil-rich lands around Kirkuk is another powder keg. Presently, there is a tense stand-off between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who currently control the oil fields of northern Iraq, and the government forces that make repeated attempts to seize military control there.

“Until at least 2015”

As the US attempts to withdraw, a fierce struggle for power and survival will open up between Iraq’s various ruling factions, with regional powers, especially Iran, playing a key role. In this context, US imperialism will not so easily give up Iraq, leaving the most important reserves of dwindling global oil supplies in hostile hands.

Thomas Ricks, the top military correspondent for the Washington Post, recently published his new book, The Gamble, based on extensive interviews with top US commanders in Iraq.

According to Ricks, military brass and foreign policy officials express deep skepticism toward Obama’s withdrawal timeline and “[m]any of those closest to the situation in Iraq expect a full-blown civil war to break out there in the coming years.”

“The quiet consensus emerging…is that U.S. soldiers will probably be engaged in combat there until at least 2015 – which would put us at about the midpoint of the conflict now.” In a summary of his book, Ricks concludes: “[T]he events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably haven’t even happened yet.” (Washington Post, 2/15/09)

The contradiction between Obama’s official agreements to end the war and the Pentagon’s continued planning for a long-term occupation reflects a very real paradox for US imperialism.

The US ruling class is desperate to extricate itself from the Iraq quagmire while, at the same time, determined to preserve a decisive influence over the region. This contradiction, alongside renewed resistance by the Iraqi people, will produce brutal new twists and eruptions before the US is finally driven out of Iraq.

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March 2009