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The farce of sovereignty

The coalition made much of bringing democracy to the 'liberated' country by handing the reins to the Iraqi government. But, as Jonathan Steele relates in this final extract from his new book, it also ensured that it retained complete control
The Guardian
January 23, 2008
Jonathan Steele
A US military transport plane regularly lifts off from Amman in Jordan and lands at the "American side" of Baghdad's international airport. This is the Baghdad shuttle: no visas required, no need to show a passport to any Iraqi official. For embassy staff, contractors, and other civilians working for the occupation it is the perfect beeline into the "other Iraq", the set of vast US-controlled compounds where Iraq's real power resides. If you have access to a helicopter, you can be whisked aloft from Baghdad airport to your final destination in the Green Zone in 10 minutes. For less important people, the trip to the Green Zone entails overland travel, a 30-minute ride in an armour-plated US bus called a Rhino. On this trip you cannot avoid spotting a few Iraqis, but in your sealed vehicle you still do not need to notify any locals of your arrival in their country.
These high-handed arrangements apply even more starkly to VIPs. US congressmen and senators, the secretaries of state and defense and other cabinet ministers, and of course the vice-president and president of the United States land in Baghdad without even the formality of an invitation. In no other country of the world are foreign leaders able to show up at whim. In Iraq, they can.
Many of these high-level visitors proceed to lecture their "hosts" on how to run the country. In the best imperial manner, they recommend who to sack from the cabinet, and who to appoint. They insist on certain laws being passed or demand changes in the constitution.
They even tell elected Iraqi leaders to resign, as I witnessed on April 3 2006. The scene was Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's office deep in the Green Zone. A fleet of bullet-proofed Chevrolet Suburban SUVs with tinted windows was parked in the drive. American security guards in mirrored sunglasses and baseball caps patrolled the entrance with their forefingers clamped on the triggers of submachine-guns. There was no sign of any Iraqi security personnel.
Inside, almost like a hostage, Jaafari was being harangued by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw. The two had decided only one day earlier to make the trip to Baghdad, exasperated that the prime minister was continuing to resist a steady flow of hints from the US ambassador that it was time to go. All kinds of arguments were trotted out. Iraq needed a leader who could unify the country. The government must clamp down on Shia militias. The cabinet had to be led by a man who could command support across the spectrum, including from Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Jaafari did not listen, or at least he did not obey. Not even a phone call from Bush in the White House had done the trick. Now he was being given his marching orders by Rice and Straw in person.
Their brutal mission got off to a bad start. A rare torrential storm burst over Baghdad just after they landed, making it too risky to take helicopters to the Green Zone. They were forced to travel like low-level officials in a Suburban and soon got stuck in a traffic jam caused by an Iraqi army checkpoint. It was a unique opportunity for Rice and Straw to sample the fear of car bombs that Iraqis felt on a daily basis.
Why Washington did not like Jaafari was never entirely clear. A family doctor who spent many years of exile in London, he had served as prime minister for just over a year. It was true that he was a dull, humourless man. It was also true that his government's record was patchy. But Jaafari had usually done what the Americans wanted and it was hard to see how any Iraqi government could make much impact in the midst of an insurgency and growing sectarian tensions. In any case, as head of a coalition dominated by Shia Islamist parties, Jaafari had little freedom of manoeuvre. The Dawa party which he headed was not the biggest party in the coalition.
Accustomed to a presidential system, the Americans hankered after a "strong leader" who would take tough decisions. Ignorant of any culture other than his own, Bush is reported to have shouted during the "crisis" over Jaafari: "Where's George Washington? Where's Thomas Jefferson? Where's John Adams, for crying out loud?" But giving leaders overwhelming powers is not how parliamentary politics usually work, especially in a system where the ruling group is itself a coalition. Not only was Jaafari unable to hand out cabinet posts; he himself had been chosen to head the Shia coalition by the smallest of margins - 64 votes to 63. This made it likely that, if he did resign, his successor would also be from the Dawa party, since any other choice would disturb the balance that had been painstakingly reached when the government jobs were carved up.
The Bush administration's hostility to Jaafari was based mainly on frustration. Security in Iraq was manifestly not improving, so the Americans decided to blame the chaos on the Iraqis. And what better target than the man who was nominally in charge?
The other reason for US anger was that Jaafari's winning score of 64 votes depended on MPs loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr had long been an American bugbear because he was the one Iraqi leader they had not been able to co-opt or isolate. He also irritated Washington because he and his MPs regularly called for a timetable for the US to leave Iraq.
While Rice and Straw were urging Jaafari to step down, I was in a side room with the prime minister's press secretary and other officials. Jaafari had decided to turn to the Guardian to get his point of view across, perhaps as a snub to the Americans or because he knew the paper regularly criticised the British government. I was promised an interview before I knew of the super-secret Rice/Straw trip. As news of it broke, I rang Jaafari's press secretary expecting to be told that the interview was off. "Only delayed," she told me, which was why I was now waiting in the prime minister's office.
The meeting with Rice and Straw was a tense affair, and when it ended, I could see through the open door into the hall as the two western visitors swept angrily out. They went off to lunch with Jaafari's political rival Adel Abdel Mahdi, a snub that they must have known Jaafari would soon learn of. The prime minister showed his own annoyance by not bothering to accompany his uninvited guests to the door of the building. After a 10-minute pause he was still so upset that he decided he could not do the interview. It was re-arranged for the following day.
This time I was asked to come to the premier's official residence, a typically tasteless sandstone Saddam-era palace in the Green Zone surrounded on three sides by an artificial lake. It was still light outside, but the heavy velvet curtains were drawn, adding to the sense of a bunker-within-a-bunker.
Looking stern and unsmiling as he fingered yellow-brown worrybeads, Jaafari struck a defiant note. He would not step down in spite of the pleas from Rice and Straw, he told me. "I heard their points of view even though I disagree with them," he declared. Taking the claim that the US and Britain had toppled Saddam in order to bring democracy, he turned it against them by recalling that he had won the vote within the Shia block to be the next prime minister. "There is a decision that was reached by a democratic mechanism, and I stand with it ... We have to protect democracy in Iraq and it is democracy that should decide who leads Iraq," he said.
Tampering with democracy was risky, he warned. "People will react if they see the rules of democracy being disobeyed. Every politician and every friend of Iraq should not want people to be frustrated. Everyone should stick to democratic mechanisms, no matter whether they disagree with the person."
It was powerful, though perhaps rather desperate, stuff. Like every other mainstream Iraqi politician, he knew the rules of the game. The Americans could not be opposed for ever. They had the money and the troops. Three weeks later, Jaafari resigned. Nouri al-Maliki, his replacement, was a colleague from the Dawa party and another Islamist. If anything, his background was "worse" than Jaafari's, since he had spent the Saddam years in Syria and Iran rather than the west. As time went on, the Americans became as frustrated with him as they had been with Jaafari. He ran a pro-Shia regime, refused to make concessions to the Sunnis, and used the language of national reconciliation without doing anything to give it substance.
When Maliki's appointment was announced, US intelligence knew little about him, so Rice flew back to Baghdad to check him out. This time she came with secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. They wanted to discover Maliki's gut feelings about the crucial issue of US troop withdrawals. The danger that an Iraqi government might ask for an end to the occupation was always Washington's biggest anxiety.
Sitting stiffly with his American visitors, Maliki told them of his plans to handle sectarian tensions and improve public services, including electricity. So far, so good. He talked of retraining and improving the police. Then he mentioned a security plan with the ambiguous name Take Back Baghdad. It was not clear if he meant from the insurgents or from the Americans. Rumsfeld decided to test him by hinting at the need to discuss cutting back on the number of US patrols in Baghdad. "It's way too early to be talking about that," Maliki replied to the Americans' relief.
Keeping US troops in Iraq on a long-term basis was a key part of the neo-cons' agenda. They were well aware of the link between military power and political control. As long as the US had troops on the ground that the Iraqi government felt it needed, the US would be able to use them as leverage for defining the main lines of Iraqi government policy. It might not mean the US could micromanage every last Iraqi decision, but it would have a veto on anything with which it disagreed fundamentally.
This was the trick that underlay the transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to an Iraqi government in June 2004. The issue for the Americans was how to guarantee the future of the military occupation once the Iraqis had their own government. Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, described Article 59 in the Transitional Administrative Law that he had drawn up as "in effect our 'security agreement' providing the legal rationale for our post-sovereignty troop presence". "For us," he said, "it was the brightest of red lines."
Article 59 referred to Iraq's newly formed armed forces "as a principal partner in the multinational force operating in Iraq under unified command". The use of the word "principal" was a smoke screen, since the reference to a unified command clearly meant the Iraqi army would be subordinate to the Americans. Bremer spelled it out unambiguously in a decree in March: "All trained elements of the Iraqi armed forces shall at all times be under the operational control of the commander of coalition forces for the purpose of conducting combined operations."
The best pretext for the US to justify maintaining troops in Iraq is, of course, the insurgency. As long as the emphasis is kept on dealing with it militarily rather than finding a political solution, the US can always claim American troops are needed in Iraq to train Iraq's own security forces. The US cannot leave until Iraqis are ready to take over - and the definition of "ready" is infinitely flexible. Sometimes the progress of the programme is measured in numbers of men recruited and trained. Sometimes it is calculated in terms of combat capability - and, inevitably, the Iraqis have been less well equipped than US forces, with worse communications systems, less modern weaponry and less experience. For as long as it suits them, the Americans can easily argue that it is not yet safe to hand the Iraqis total control over security.
High-profile media events have been held to mark the transfer of responsibility for security in various provinces from the US to the Iraqis. But in every case the Americans or the British remain as a back-up to provide air support, logistical assistance and, on occasion, their own troops. It is exactly the same system as "Vietnamisation" during the Vietnam war. Local forces take an increasing share of front-line combat as well as static guard duty and manning check-points, but the foreigners remain in ultimate charge. Their military superiority continues to give the Americans political control at almost every level of the Iraqi government.
2008 Jonathan Steele.
Extracted from Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, by Jonathan Steele, published by IB Tauris at 20 (and in the US in March by Counterpoint). To order a copy for 18 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875.
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008
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