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    Middle East
     Jul 11, 2009
Page 1 of 2
The US takes to the shadows in Iraq
By Michael Schwartz

Here's how reporters Steven Lee Myers and Marc Santora of the New York Times described the highly touted American withdrawal from Iraq's cities last week:
Much of the complicated work of dismantling and removing millions of dollars of equipment from the combat outposts in the city has been done during the dark of night. General Ray Odierno, the overall American commander in Iraq, has ordered that an increasing number of basic operations - transport and re-supply convoys, for example - take place at night, when fewer Iraqis are likely to see that the American withdrawal is not total.
Acting in the dark of night, in fact, seems to catch the nature of

 

American plans for Iraq in a particularly striking way. Last week, despite the death of Michael Jackson, Iraq made it back into the TV news as Iraqis celebrated a highly publicized American military withdrawal from their cities. Fireworks went off; some Iraqis gathered to dance and cheer; the first military parade since Saddam Hussein's day took place (in the fortified Green Zone, the country's ordinary streets still being too dangerous for such things); the US handed back many small bases and outposts; and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proclaimed a national holiday - "sovereignty day", he called it.

All of this fit with a script promisingly laid out by President Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, in his much-praised speech to the students of Egypt's Cairo University, he promised that the US would keep no bases in Iraq, and would indeed withdraw its military forces from the country by the end of 2011.

Unfortunately, not just for the Iraqis, but for the American public, it's what's happening in "the dark" - beyond the glare of lights and TV cameras - that counts. While many critics of the Iraq War have been willing to cut the Obama administration some slack as its foreign policy team and the US military gear up for that definitive withdrawal, something else - something more unsettling - appears to be going on.

And it wasn't just the president's hedging over withdrawing American "combat" troops from Iraq which, in any case, make up as few as one-third of the 130,000 US forces still in the country - now extended from 16 to 19 months. Nor was it the re-labeling of some of them as "advisors" so they could, in fact, stay in the vacated cities, or the redrawing of the boundary lines of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, to exclude a couple of key bases the Americans weren't about to give up.

After all, there can be no question that the Obama administration's policy is indeed to reduce what the Pentagon might call the US military "footprint" in Iraq. To put it another way, Obama's key officials seem to be opting not for blunt-edged, former president George W Bush-style militarism, but for what might be thought of as an administrative push in Iraq, what Vice President Joe Biden has called "a much more aggressive program vis-a-vis the Iraqi government to push it to political reconciliation".

An anonymous senior State Department official described this new "dark of night" policy to Christian Science Monitor reporter Jane Arraf in this way: "One of the challenges of that new relationship is how the US can continue to wield influence on key decisions without being seen to do so."

Without being seen to do so. On this General Odierno and the unnamed official are in agreement. And so, it seems, is Washington. As a result, the crucial thing you can say about the Obama administration's military and civilian planning so far is this: ignore the headlines, the fireworks, and the briefly cheering crowds of Iraqis on your TV screen. Put all that talk of withdrawal aside for a moment and - if you take a closer look, letting your eyes adjust to the darkness - what is vaguely visible is the silhouette of a new American posture in Iraq. Think of it as the Obama Doctrine. And what it doesn't look like is the posture of an occupying power preparing to close up shop and head for home.

As your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, you begin to identify a deepening effort to ensure that Iraq remains a US client state, or, as General Odierno described it to the press on June 30th, "a long-term partner with the United States in the Middle East". Whether Obama's national security team can succeed in this is certainly an open question, but, on a first hard look, what seems to be coming into focus shouldn't be too unfamiliar to students of history. Once upon a time, it used to have a name: colonialism.

Colonialism in Iraq
Traditional colonialism was characterized by three features: ultimate decision-making rested with the occupying power instead of the indigenous client government; the personnel of the colonial administration were governed by different laws and institutions than the colonial population; and the local political economy was shaped to serve the interests of the occupying power. All the features of classic colonialism took shape in the Bush years in Iraq and are now, as far as we can tell, being continued, in some cases even strengthened, in the early months of the Obama era.

The US Embassy in Iraq, built by the Bush administration to the tune of $740 million, is by far the largest in the world. It is now populated by more than 1,000 administrators, technicians, and professionals - diplomatic, military, intelligence, and otherwise - though all are regularly, if euphemistically, referred to as "diplomats" in official statements and in the media. This level of staffing - 1,000 administrators for a country of perhaps 30 million - is well above the classic norm for imperial control. Back in the early 20th century, for instance, Great Britain utilized fewer officials to rule a population of 300 million in its Indian Raj.

Such a concentration of foreign officialdom in such a gigantic regional command center with no downsizing or withdrawals yet apparent certainly signals Washington's larger imperial design: to have sufficient administrative labor power on hand to ensure that American advisors remain significantly embedded in Iraqi political decision-making, in its military, and in the key ministries of its (oil-dominated) economy.

From the first moments of the occupation of Iraq, US officials have been sitting in the offices of Iraqi politicians and bureaucrats, providing guidelines, training decision-makers, and brokering domestic disputes. As a consequence, Americans have been involved, directly or indirectly, in virtually all significant government decision-making.

In a recent article, for example, the New York Times reported that US officials are "quietly lobbying" to cancel a mandated nationwide referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated between the United States and Iraq - a referendum that, if defeated, would at least theoretically force the immediate withdrawal of all US troops from the country. In another article, the Times reported that embassy officials have "sometimes stepped in to broker peace between warring blocs" in the Iraqi Parliament. In yet another, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes mentioned in passing that an embassy official "advises Iraqis running the $100 million airport" just completed in Najaf. And so it goes.

Segregated living
Most colonial regimes erect systems in which foreigners involved in occupation duties are served (and disciplined) by an institutional structure separate from the one that governs the indigenous population. In Iraq, the US has been building such a structure since 2003, and the Obama administration shows every sign of extending it.

As in all embassies around the world, US Embassy officials are not subject to the laws of the host country. The difference is that, in Iraq, they are not simply stamping visas and the like, but engaged in crucial projects involving them in myriad aspects of daily life and governance, although as an essentially separate caste within Iraqi society. Military personnel are part of this segregated structure: the recently signed SOFA insures that American soldiers will remain virtually untouchable by Iraqi law, even if they kill innocent civilians.

Versions of this immunity extend to everyone associated with the occupation. Private security, construction, and commercial contractors employed by occupation forces are not protected by the SOFA agreement, but are nonetheless shielded from the laws and regulations that apply to normal Iraqi residents. As an Iraq-based FBI official told the New York Times, the obligations of contractors are defined by "new arrangements between Iraq and the United States governing contractors' legal status". In a recent case in which five employees of one US contractor were charged with killing another contractor, the case was jointly investigated by Iraqi police and "local representatives of the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]", with ultimate jurisdiction negotiated by Iraqi and US embassy officials. The FBI has established a substantial presence in Iraq to carry out these "new arrangements".

This special handling extends to enterprises servicing the billions of dollars spent every month in Iraq on US contracts. A contractor's prime responsibility is to follow "guidelines the US military handed down in 2006". In all this, Iraqi law has a distinctly secondary role. In one apparently typical case, a Kuwaiti contractor hired to feed US soldiers was accused of imprisoning its foreign workers and then, when they protested, sending them home without pay. This case was handled by US officials, not the Iraqi government.

Beyond this legal segregation, the US has also been erecting a segregated infrastructure within Iraq. Most embassies and military bases around the world rely on the host country for food, electricity, water, communications, and daily supplies. Not the US embassy or the five major bases that are at the heart of the American military presence in that country. They all have their own electrical generating and water purification systems, their own dedicated communications, and imported food from outside the country. None, naturally, offer indigenous Iraqi cuisine; the embassy imports ingredients suitable for reasonably upscale American restaurants, and the military bases feature American fast food and chain restaurant fare.

The United States has even created the rudiments of its own transportation system. Iraqis often are delayed when traveling within or between cities, thanks to an occupation-created (and now often Iraqi-manned) maze of checkpoints, cement barriers, and bombed-out streets and roads; on the other hand, US soldiers and officials in certain areas can move around more quickly, thanks to special privileges and segregated facilities.

In the early years of the occupation, large military convoys transporting supplies or soldiers simply took temporary possession of Iraqi highways and streets. Iraqis who didn't quickly get out of the way were threatened with lethal firepower. To negotiate sometimes hours-long lines at checkpoints, Americans were given special ID cards that "guaranteed swift passage ... in a separate lane past waiting Iraqis". Though the guaranteed "swift passage" was supposed to end with the signing of the SOFA, the system is still operating at many checkpoints, and convoys continue to roar through Iraqi communities with "Iraqi drivers still pulling over en masse".

Recently, the occupation has also been appropriating various streets and roads for its exclusive use (an idea that may have been borrowed from Israel's 40-year-old occupation of the West Bank.) This innovation has made unconvoyed transportation safer for embassy officials, contractors, and military personnel, while 

Continued 1 2  


Iraq celebrates a victory of sorts (Jul 1,'09)

The training wheels are off (Jul 1,'09)


1.
Abandon ship

2. Double-digit doom

3. Indian might met with Chinese threats

4. A leaner, meaner Iranian regime 

5. Pyongyang's cyber-terrorism hits home

6. No question, Hu's in charge

7. How wrong can you get?

8. Xinjiang - China's energy gateway

9. No end in sight to US jobless rise

10. Asia's growth hopes crumble

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET,July 9, 2009)

 
 



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