Recent news reports have said that the US is making arrangements for a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq by December 31. I said five years ago that I felt that there was bipartisan agreement in the US to keep troops in that country indefinitely as part of its ambitions for global empire, mainly because the US was investing so much money to construct massive, permanent, military bases in addition to the largest embassy in the world. This did not look like the actions of a country that was planning to leave any time soon. So the announcement of a ‘complete withdrawal’ requires some explanation.
The picture has been confused by the White House’s contradictory statements. While they try to pacify their antiwar supporters by acting as they actually wanted this outcome and are fulfilling a campaign promise for withdrawal, they are also trying to counter their Republican critics, who are blasting them for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and demanding that the US continue to keep its troops there, by pointing out that the December 31, 2011 deadline was actually negotiated by George W. Bush with the Iraqi government back in 2008, in something known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that was subsequently endorsed by the Iraqi parliament. It was what allowed the US to continue to keep troops in the country beyond the earlier December 31, 2008 deadline.
The story gets even more complicated. The idea seemed to be that the SOFA would be re-negotiated later to extend that deadline beyond 2011. And in fact, contrary to the idea that this withdrawal outcome was something Obama wanted in order to keep his campaign promise, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to extend the deadline and the withdrawal announcement was caused by the Iraqis being adamant about not allowing it. In fact, the White House is still negotiating for a continuation, even after the withdrawal announcement.
Why are the Iraqis balking at an extension? The main reason is that the US is insisting that US troops have immunity from the Iraqi government for any actions in that country. But many events involving US troops killing civilians have angered Iraqis, and the idea of giving immunity that might be seen as condoning and even encouraging further such actions was seen as a non-starter by a significant segment of the Iraqi population.
One incident that has caused particular outrage was the release in May of this year by WikiLeaks of a US diplomatic cable of a massacre in 2006 by US troops, as reported by the McClatchy news service. (Warning: Heartbreaking photo of dead young children accompanies the story.)
A U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi.
But Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a communication to American officials dated 12 days after the March 15, 2006, incident that autopsies performed in the Iraqi city of Tikrit showed that all the dead had been handcuffed and shot in the head. Among the dead were four women and five children. The children were all 5 years old or younger.
It is likely that the anger at reports of such incidents, and the natural feeling that people who committed such atrocities must be brought to justice, torpedoed any efforts by the Nouri al-Maliki government to obtain the immunity required by the US.
It did not help the US that since Bush signed the agreement, party members representing cleric Muqtada al Sadr have gained significant strength in the Iraqi parliament, winning 40 seats in the 2010 elections and gaining eight seats in the cabinet. al Sadr has close ties with Iran and is adamantly opposed to any extension for US troops.
Even after the withdrawal, the US will still have a major military presence in Iraq, consisting of a small army of private military contractors working for the State Department. They have similar military capabilities to the US army and their role will be to protect US interests, including the massive embassy and five consulate-like outposts spread around the country. The State Department is keeping secret its plans for this private army and denying the usual government oversight committees any jurisdiction. This is not a good sign because these private armies lack the discipline and accountability of the regular military and the State Department has little experience with overseeing such a quasi-military operation. It was private contractors that were responsible for the 2007 event when Blackwater security personnel killed 17 civilians in a rampage at a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad. The company renamed itself Xe Services after that event.
It seems likely that the US will continue its negotiations for an extension right down to the wire.