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    Middle East
     Aug 6, 2005
Basic questions about bases
By Ashraf Fahim

Hardly a day has gone by in the past few weeks without a new press report detailing the US military's plans to reduce its footprint in Iraq next year. First it was a leaked British memo saying that Britain would hand over southern Iraq to the Iraqis and the US would cut its troops in half. Then it was General George W Casey, the senior commander in Iraq, promising a "fairly substantial" US withdrawal by the summer of 2006. Finally, there was the announcement of a joint Iraqi-US committee to determine the "conditions" for a US exit.

The Bush administration, it would seem, is finally responding to pervasive anti-occupation sentiment in the US and Iraq. But the raft of announcements does little to address what many believe is a deeper problem - the Iraqi insurgency is likely being driven by fears that even once the large majority of US forces leave, enough will remain behind in permanent bases to allow the US to control Iraq's destiny.

There is now a growing chorus in the US arguing that it should be made clear to Iraqis that all US forces will eventually depart. As the Iraqi insurgency rages unabated, with scores of US soldiers killed in the first days of August alone, the notion that such a promise might alter the current dynamic is taking hold in the mainstream. Two members of Congress have separately sponsored resolutions calling for a declaration that the US will not maintain a long-term military presence in Iraq.

Senator John Kerry, who introduced the idea into the national discourse during last fall's first presidential debate, restated it in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. "The president must ... announce immediately that the United States will not have a permanent military presence in Iraq," Kerry wrote. "Erasing suspicions that the occupation is indefinite is critical to eroding support for the insurgency."

The proposal has also gained diverse support in policy circles. Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority, recently wrote that the administration's refusal to declare it doesn't seek permanent military bases "has aroused Iraqi suspicions that we seek long-term domination of their country". And Anthony Cordesman of the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies, regarded as the dean of Middle East strategic studies by the Washington establishment, said in recent testimony to the Senate that the administration should "make it clear that the US and Britain will not maintain post-insurgency bases in Iraq".

Bases built to last
It is an open question whether or not the Bush administration will be willing to give Iraqis the type of guarantee being called for. Any serious withdrawal is a long way off since, by most accounts, Iraqi troops are far from ready to take over from the US. Incoming head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, informed Congress on June 29 that a recent classified Pentagon report had concluded that only "a small number" of Iraqi troops could fight the insurgency unassisted. And many analysts feel that the administration wants to keep a presence in Iraq irrespective of Iraqi military preparedness in order to safeguard America's larger strategic interests in the region (chiefly oil).

Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group (ICG), told Asia Times Online it would be strange if America didn't intend to stay in Iraq. "One of the reasons they invaded, as far as I can tell, is because they needed to shift their military operation from Saudi Arabia," he said, "and Iraq was probably the easiest one in terms of a big country to support their presence in the Gulf." The idea that the US wanted to swap Iraq for Saudi Arabia was acknowledged by then-deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2003.

Persistent reports that the US is constructing permanent bases in Iraq lend credence to the view that the Bush administration plans to stay. The Chicago Tribune reported in March 2004 that the US was building 14 "enduring" bases in Iraq, and the Washington Post reported in May that US forces would eventually be consolidated into four large, permanent air bases.

Erik Leaver, of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and a long-time proponent of a promise to close US military bases, told Asia Times Online that the kind of construction taking place belies statements from President George W Bush that the US only intends to stay "as long as necessary and not one day more", as Bush said on April 13, 2004. Not only are ammunition dumps and concrete runways and roads being built, he said, but so is long-term housing for US troops.

"We can tell by looking at the supplementals and the defense bills that they are building concrete masonry barracks," says Leaver, "And some of the justification is that tents and containers only have a life span of three to five years. The implication is that they need something longer than that." Leaver said the military did have a plausible rationale for using concrete. "If mortars are being lobbed into military bases then you want to put soldiers into concrete masonry barracks for their safety," he said, "but that's the same stuff that my house and office building are constructed from, and those things are pretty permanent."

US Senator Gary Hart captured the inconsistencies such construction reveal in the Bush administration's rationale for its Iraq project. "If the goal ... was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, install a friendly government in Baghdad, set up a permanent political and military presence in Iraq, and dominate the behavior of the region (including securing oil supplies) then you build permanent bases for some kind of permanent American military presence," Hart wrote in May. "If the goal was to spread democracy and freedom, then you don't."

Keeping Its options open
Another question, of course, is whether, even if the Bush administration declared it would pull out altogether, its guarantee would have the desired effect.

Leaver of IPS thinks it would. "Most of the insurgents and their supporters," he said, "are opposed to the occupation and the long-term nature of it, so making that declaration is vitally important."

Though support for the insurgency is strongest among Sunni Arabs, the vast majority of Iraqis want a quick end to the occupation. A January public opinion poll by Zogby International found more than 80% support for a US withdrawal immediately or when a permanent government is elected. This sentiment is reflected in a resolution currently gaining support in the Iraqi parliament (103 of 275 members have signed) calling for "a timetable for the withdrawal of occupation troops".

In addition, the movement of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claimed last week to have gathered one million signatures on an anti-occupation petition. But it cannot be said definitively that Iraqis want no US troops to remain at all. Little polling has been done in that regard, although an Oxford Research Institute poll in June 2004 found that only 1.2% of Iraqis wanted American troops to remain indefinitely.

Despite widespread anti-occupation sentiment, Hiltermann of ICG doesn't agree that promising a full exit is either wise or necessary. "It's critical that Iraqis, especially those who are fence-sitters when it comes to the insurgency are convinced that the US will leave in the foreseeable future," he said. But he cautions against a timetable, or declaring an intent to leave altogether. "You don't want to give the insurgents the idea that they were victorious and embolden them," he said.

The views of the Sunni Arab minority on the long-term relationship with the US are crucial to the longevity of the insurgency. Hiltermann believes that despite widespread anti-American feeling among Sunni Arabs, they have yet to make up their minds on the relationship with the US. "At the moment all the Sunni Arabs are saying is that they don't want American troops to stay as an occupation army," he said. "They have not moved to the point where they say we want them out completely and no future security relationship with the US. And so they might be quite flexible on that, or they might not."

Yet profound mistrust of US intentions, particularly among the strongly nationalistic Sunni Arabs, is undoubtedly stoking fears that Iraq will become an American protectorate. A recent op-ed in Iraq's Azzaman newspaper captured the skepticism: "Imagine there are no oil reserves in Iraq. First, the US and Britain will immediately withdraw their troops and end their invasion, the cause of so much harm, killings and atrocities." Fears that the US intends to divide and weaken Iraq, and thereby the Arab and Muslim worlds, underlie Sunni opposition to the devolved federalism now being debated in the constitutional talks (as does self-interest, of course, since most of the oil is in Shi'ite areas).

At the moment, the relative merits of a hypothetical US promise not to stay in perpetuity are academic since the Bush administration appears determined to keep its options open. Although it has declared its intent to draw down its forces next year, it has turned rhetorical cartwheels to avoid the question of a long-term presence. Rumsfeld has equivocated less than Bush, but in testimony to Congress on February 17, he still found a nifty caveat: "I can assure you that we have no intention at the present time of putting permanent bases in Iraq," he said.

The disposition of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and the Iraqi leadership is no less ambiguous. Even as the largely Shi'ite leadership draws closer to Iran, which has no interest in a long-term US presence on its western borders, it has left the door open to the US. Jaafari did declare on July 27, "It is the great desire of the Iraqi people to see the coalition forces on their way out." But he made clear that any reductions are condition-based.

Hiltermann leans towards the view that the Iraqi government's cooperation with the US is tactical rather than strategic for the time being. "There is a growing impatience in Shi'ite quarters with the Americans at all levels," he said. "As a result, they are probably less and less inclined to have a serious American presence in Iraq over the long term. Whether that would mean they would not want to have a security relationship with the US depends in part on the nature of such a relationship."

Recent signs indicate that in the medium term the Iraqi leadership isn't inclined to change horses in midstream. Rumsfeld said after meeting with Jaafari on July 27 that US military lawyers were looking into the legalities of extending the US presence, a statement he would hardly make were his allies in Baghdad not in sync.

Asking permission
If the Bush administration wishes to retain a military presence in Iraq it may yet find the Iraqi leadership amenable. They are, after all, dependent on US forces for their survival. But the Iraqi public is fiercely nationalistic ("a proud and independent people", as Bush called them) and their suspicions of the US can only grow as rumors proliferate of concrete being poured in distant military bases. And unless the Iraqi government actually consults its people before inviting the Americans to stay, even a nominally democratic Iraq could become just like the other US allies in the region, in which there is an immense chasm between the desires of the rulers and the aspirations of the ruled.

Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in New York and London. His writing can be found at www.storminateacup.org.uk

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

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