A Dialogue about Iraq
by John Burdick

This is an excerpt from a longer piece that was used in SPC's "Talking About the War" skill share on January 30. For the full version see www.peacecouncil.net. See information for future skill shares.

Question: So you're a peace activist? Well, no one's talking about the war anymore. The economy is the real issue people are worried about this year.
Answer: Actually, it doesn't make much sense to talk about the economy without talking about the impact of the war. Since September 11, 2001, Congress has allocated $691 billion to cover war and occupation costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). And since we're paying for it almost entirely on credit, the real cost is going to be in the trillions of dollars - in fact, the CBO has estimated that interest payments on the debt alone will be $2.7 trillion over the next decade. All this money, and both Iraq and Afghanistan are still a mess.

Question: But the surge is working. All the reports I hear and read are that the violence in Iraq has really dropped. Isn't this proof that Bush was right and that all Iraq needed was an extra infusion of US troops?
Answer: 2007 was the deadliest year for US troops, with 901 killed; and the second bloodiest for Iraq as a whole, with at least 22,586 civilian deaths. Resistance attacks on US forces are still running at 2,000 a month, and the level of violence is back to roughly where it was in 2004-05 - seen as disastrous at the time. So, there has been a relative reduction in deaths, but hundreds of Iraqis continue to die every month. Plus, this "reduction" in violence is being bought at an incredibly high and volatile price, a price that in fact is rendering Iraq even more dangerous.

Question: What do you mean?
Answer: Well, the reduction is being achieved by ethnic cleansing and the creation of ethnically-based militia-armies. The single most important force "reducing" violence is the territorial segregation in Iraq of its ethnic groups. By driving Sunnis out of Shia dominated areas, and vice versa, the US military, under General Petraeus, has helped to carve Iraq into mutually hostile, armed ethnic territories. So, there's a temporary "peace," but the militias of both of these areas are consolidating, re-arming and preparing for assaults on each other.

Question: What about those citizen councils they keep talking about? Isn't that proof at the grassroots level that the Iraqis with the help of the US are starting to put their own society in order?
Answer: This is where the "Awakening Councils" in the western provinces come into the picture. These groups, highly armed by the US, are credited with "going after" extremists and al Qaeda. But these Councils are made up of the very Sunni insurgents who just a few months ago were fighting the US. They are accepting arms from the US in order to become a fighting force, now numbering about 80,000 (larger than the national army), that can menace the Shia-based government in Baghdad.
You could compare this with US policy supporting mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, though in Iraq there is much more fragmentation among the various Councils than there was among the mujahideen. In that regard, the current policy lends itself to greater US control. By keeping Iraq divided and weak, the US has an excuse for its continuing military occupation, and it keeps Iraq from making a powerful political alliance with Iran or instituting a nationalist oil policy.

Question: Hmmm. Sounds like a leftwing conspiracy theory to me. I think you're underestimating the real changes that are taking place in Iraq. I've read that thousands of Iraqis, pleased by what they see as a drop in violence and return of security, are returning to their homes.
Answer: Look, there are at least three things to consider here. First, all the reports we have from governments and humanitarian aid agencies tell us that since September 25,000-35,000 Iraqis have tried to return to their homes. Given that four million people have been driven from their homes since March 2003 by the war, ethnic cleansing and US occupation, that means that fewer than one percent of the displaced have tried to return home. Generally, post-war returns are not considered successful until 60-70% of displaced persons have been allowed to return to their original homes. Second, the best evidence we have is that all but about 5-10% of these people are returning because they have been forced to do so by host governments such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Finally, these numbers don't say anything about what is happening to these returnees - what fear, new displacement or threats they now face.

Question: You see the negative side to everything! What about that new law they passed welcoming in ex-Baath party people? Doesn't that show that Bush was right in thinking that all the Iraqis needed was some breathing room and the Parliament would start passing the laws they needed for national reconciliation?
Answer: If you read the text of the law and listen to politicians on both sides you'll see that the Shia have passed a law which, far from being about "national reconciliation," is about the domination of one group over another. In 2007, the Shia-dominated Maliki government promised it would draw in ex-Baathists to government jobs, raising the expectation for some sort of political reconciliation. Yet the core of the new law is the exclusion of all former Baathists, even the lowest-ranking ones, from paying jobs in all the key ministries - including the justice, interior, defense, finance and foreign ministries. The law breaks the promise of offering military and police jobs to the thousands of Sunni Arabs who have joined the Awakening Councils. "Many Baathists hated the Baath Party," said Khalaf Aulian, a Sunni politician, "but they were part of it to have a job. By this law, we will push them into the insurgency." A law being trumpeted in the press as "proof" that the "surge is working" is actually a new flashpoint for ethnic resentment, anger and violence.

Question: Well, all of this is easy for you to say, because you're not an Iraqi who has to face the dangers of living there every day. I think I read somewhere that the Iraqi people want the US to stay in order to protect them. Right?
Answer: Wrong. Every survey, poll and focus group conducted in Iraq through December of 2007 - even those conducted by the US military - shows the same pattern: overwhelming majorities of Iraqis, of all ethnic groups, view the US military as the primary source of violence in the country, and see the departure of the US military as key to national reconciliation. In September, 70% of the Iraqis polled believed the surge had worsened conditions for political dialogue. And in December, intensive research conducted by the military revealed that a clear majority of Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups "believe that the US military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them."

Question: Fine, OK. But at the end of the day, all political and military leaders agree that the US will be leaving Iraq sooner or later. Right?
Answer: Wrong. In reality the consensus among political and military elites is just the opposite. That's why the Bush administration is working so hard to establish a "Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship" with Iraq, to pave the way for the long-term occupation that will make Iraq a permanent client state of the US. The "Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship" established in November 2007 and to be finalized by June 2008, establishes permanent US military bases in Iraq and preferential treatment for US energy conglomerates and investors. To ensure these goals, the Declaration stipulates that US troops will relocate to 20 huge bases, and that 50,000 will remain in the country indefinitely, explicitly rejecting any timetables for withdrawal. "These bases," according to Debka-Net-Weekly, a web site associated with Israeli military intelligence, "are under construction; they will be secured by broad swathes of space, fortified with weaponry and remote-controlled electronic devices."
Today's leading presidential candidates say they will withdraw US troops from combat theatres in Iraq but plan to leave tens of thousands in huge military bases. Both Clinton and Obama agree with the Republicans that Iraq is too important to US oil and security interests to leave to the Iraqis. Not surprisingly, although the Declaration hardly produced a ripple in the US media, both Sunni and Shia politicians are outraged. For them, the Maliki agreement sanctions "US interference for years to come." The Association of Muslim Scholars said the Iraqi signatories of the Declaration would be looked on as "collaborators with the occupier." Remember the Sunni army (the Awakening Councils) the US is helping to form? That creates a constant state of inter-ethnic tension between Sunni and Shia, which allows the US to pressure the Shia central government in Baghdad to not become aligned with Iran, to admit permanent US bases and accept agreements to submit Iraq's oil industry to non-Iraqi corporate control.

Question: Shoot. I have to think this over. I'll get back to you later, OK?

John is a professor at Syracuse University and has been an active member with SPC's Iraq Organizing Committee.