By Martin Thomas
For the first time since the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, US withdrawal from the country looks like a short-term prospect.
On 12 July the US House of Representatives voted to set a deadline of April 2008 for the withdrawal of almost all American troops from Iraq. The next day two senior Republican Senators, John Warner and Richard Lugar, tabled a bill that would reduce the role of American forces in Iraq to the protection of Iraq’s borders and of American bases.
Andrew Sullivan, who, though he is a hard-line neo-con and a supporter of the 2003 invasion, has long advocated that the US “scuttle”, wrote in the Sunday Times on 15 July: “Some time in the next six months there will be a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq”.
Iyad Allawi, who was prime minister (effectively by US appointment) in the Transitional Government of 2004-5 and who tried and failed earlier this year to assemble a majority in Iraq’s parliament to oust current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and install Allawi himself, more or less as a dictator, says he “fears” US troops will start to withdraw next year.
The moves in the US Congress were triggered by an official US report on progress under the “surge” of extra US troops to Iraq since early 2007. The surge was supposed to put at least some lid on the simmering sectarian civil war and the guerrilla war by Islamist Sunni Arab groups against the US forces and the Shia-dominated Baghdad government, and thus allow for progress in political and civil reconstruction.
Although US President George W Bush blustered about it, the report showed essentially no progress on anything important.
The “surge” has failed, as we predicted in Solidarity that it would. It has not, or not yet, tipped Iraq head-first into the lowest depths in either of the two ways it threatened to — by opening a two-front war which would pit the US forces in direct battle against the most obstreperous Shia Islamists, the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as the Sunni Islamists, or by triggering the collapse of the Maliki government — but it has failed.
The Maliki government has even less grip on the country than it had six months ago. Such is the everydayness of death and terror in Baghdad that the US State Department has now instructed its employees in the Green Zone — the one area in Baghdad supposed to be kept fully safe by the huge US military forces — not to venture outdoors, even in the Zone, without body armour.
Maliki has declared blandly that the Iraqi army is capable of controlling the country and the US can withdraw any time it likes. As US academic Juan Cole commented: “What gives a person pause is that al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party has no militia. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council [SCIRI], has a paramilitary [force] of some 15,000 or more Badr Corps militiamen.
“Al-Hakim, who is the one who should be confident of his troops, has repeatedly called for US soldiers to remain in Iraq. If the Badr Corps, the most disciplined and well trained Arab force in Iraq, cannot do the job in al-Hakim’s view, then the green and feckless Iraqi military certainly cannot.... Maliki is engaging in wishful thinking”.
Right-wingers like Sullivan do not base their advocacy of withdrawal on the idea that the Maliki government could hold on without US scaffolding. The idea, once popular among some US politicians, that the threat of US withdrawal could be an effective tool to get the Maliki government to “shape up”, has few takers now. As Sullivan writes: “Even worse horrors will probably unfold. In areas of sectarian conflict the violence could be dreadful even by Iraqi standards... Many innocents will die”.
Bush, and any of the likely candidates to succeed him as President, don’t care too much about innocents dying. What they do care about is that no-one can suggest a plan to extricate them from their folly that does not almost certainly mean a surge for political Islam; the collapse of Iraq; serious destabilisation of governments allied to the USA in this strategically-vital, oil-rich region, such as those of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; and a boost for Iran.
Such facts suggest that US withdrawal may well not come as soon as Sullivan thinks. Pretty well all the official US “withdrawal” schemes amount to something rather less than withdrawal: some US forces would remain, to police Iraq’s borders, to protect US interests, or to pursue ultra-Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, and it is difficult to see how those forces could avoid being dragged into battles beyond their remit.
Still, the failure of the “surge” has made withdrawal more likely.
From a socialist point of view, there is one plus to this: the risk of the USA invading other countries will be seriously reduced, and for several years to come, by an official US admission of catastrophe in Iraq.
But that gain is pretty much something already acquired. To see no other factors but that, and therefore to applaud the signals of withdrawal without reservation, would be to ignore important other factors.
Possibly Iraqi Kurdistan, if it managed to come out of the civil war as a functioning unit, without suffering invasion from Turkey, would retain some space for democratic political life; but, outside that, full-scale civil war in Iraq, almost certainly leading to the victories for Islamist clerical-fascist formations in the various segments of a dismembered Iraq, would bring the crushing of the much-harassed, but still living, Iraqi labour movement. It would close off the possibility of democratic self-determination for the peoples of Iraq for a long time to come.
It is not our place, as socialists, irreconcilable opponents of US imperialism, and militant opponents of the 2003 invasion, to call for the US to stay longer; nor could it conceivably have any useful effect if we did call for that. The US administration is unlikely to come up with any new scheme in Iraq less counterproductive than the “surge”.
Our priority in all circumstances must be solidarity with and support for the Iraqi labour movement which has emerged since 2003, and which, hard-pressed though it is, represents Iraq’s best hope for non-sectarianism and for democracy. Our priority must be to work to maximise whatever small chance there still is that the labour movement can live through the disaster, and emerge as a force to remake Iraq in the future.