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IRAQ: Questions Remain About the U.S. Role July 6, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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Analysis by Helena Cobban*

WASHINGTON, Jul 6 (IPS) – The United States largely complied with a plan, negotiated with Iraq’s government last November, to withdraw its troops from the centre of all Iraqi cities by Jun. 30.

But the late June announcement that Vice President Joe Biden will be playing a lead role in coordinating the Barack Obama administration’s policies in Iraq, and Biden’s performance during the three-day visit he made to Iraq in the first days of July, raised some serious questions about whether Washington will be a helpful force as Iraqis continue their push for full independence and functioning self-governance.

The new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Christopher Hill, has scant experience of Iraqi history or politics, while Biden has for several years tried to follow Iraqi affairs closely from his seat on – and then as chair of – the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden’s voice in the intra-administration discussions of the months ahead is therefore likely to be a powerful one.

Inside Iraq, Biden is best known – and widely criticised – as a co-author of the 2006 “Biden-Gelb Plan”, which urged that as much real power as possible be devolved from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad to three mini-states that would divide the country along ethnic and religious lines.

On Biden’s latest visit to Baghdad, his first as vice president, he was greeted by at least one sizeable anti-U.S. demonstration, in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. A McClatchy News reporter wrote that one demonstrator there said, “Biden’s visit sent the signal to us that Iraq will be divided. Biden’s background doesn’t allow him to play any role in reconciliation.”

But playing a role in brokering intra-Iraqi reconciliation is exactly what Biden said he plans to do. He told reporters accompanying him on the trip that one of his goals was “to promote a political settlement on unresolved issues from boundary disputes to the oil law”.

In a fully independent country, such matters are naturally the domain of the national government, rather than any outside power.

Biden also said that the way he planned to proceed was to “reestablish contact with each of the leaders among the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shia and talk through with them what they think has to be accommodated” with regard to these issues.

His description of the main forces in Iraqi politics being the three ethno-religious groups of “Kurds, Sunnis and Shia”, and the way he implied that each of these blocs is – or should be – monolithic revived fears among many Iraqis and Iraq experts that he is pursuing a “softer” and less territorialised version of his earlier power-devolution plan.

The experienced Norwegian analyst of Iraqi affairs Reidar Visser has noted that this new variant of the older Biden Plan already has a name that is widely used among Iraqis: muhasasa, or “apportionment”.

Other Middle East specialists note that this looks suspiciously like the very inegalitarian system of “confessionalism” that the French bequeathed to Lebanon back in the 1940s, and that has been the source of considerable tensions inside Lebanon ever since.

Visser wrote in a recent commentary on his website, historiae.org, “What Biden and Obama don’t seem to understand is that most Iraqis detest this psychological sort of partition just as much as they hated the territorial variant that was advocated in the name of ethno-sectarian federalism in 2007.”

He added that among most Iraqis, “Muhasasa is portrayed as a weakness of Iraqi politics which was introduced by returning Iraqi exiles and Paul Bremer in 2003, and which has since festered and grown into a fundamental problem that prevents professionalism and esprit de corps from taking root in the Iraqi state.”

Visser noted that in the provincial elections that were held in Iraq in January, many new political forces emerged, weakening the hold of the big sectarian and ethnic parties on the levers of power at the local level.

The next nationwide elections are due next January. Visser worries that Biden and Pres. Obama might carry on talking as if “the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia” make up the whole of the political spectrum, and might act in accordance with that view – as, for example, when Biden said he would deal primarily with the leaders of those blocs.

In that case, he wrote, the present, cross-sectarian movements and coalitions might well be crushed once again, as they were during the elections of 2005, and the political and programmatic differences that have emerged within some of the big ethno-sectarian blocs could easily be smothered.

Some Middle East experts said they thought Biden was also displaying a tin ear to the political sensitivities of most Iraqis when he warned that if Iraq’s politicians did not shape up and reach the political agreements he wants them to conclude, then the United States would have to lessen its involvement in Iraqi affairs.

“Why does he assume that after all the suffering they’ve been through in the past six years, most Iraqis want Americans to stick around?” one expert asked, in amazement.

She noted that while in Iraq, Biden seemed to talk only to a small section of the political elite, composed mainly of figures who had lived in exile under Saddam Hussein and rose to prominence in their country only under the patronage of the U.S. occupation.

“Of course, among those people, there is a high proportion who want the U.S. to stick around,” she said. “Many of them fear that once the U.S. leaves completely they will have to leave too. And the past six years have been very profitable for many of those people, with all the contracts and influence they have won.”

Under the terms of last November’s agreement, which was called a ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) by the Americans and a ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ by the Iraqis, the U.S. is obligated to withdraw all its troops from the rest of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Most Iraqis welcomed Washington’s near-full implementation of the first withdrawal step that it mandated, on Jun. 30. But they note that the U.S. still has combat troops inside some cities, including in Sadr City.

They also note that U.S. military “advisors” are still working with many nominally Iraqi military and paramilitary units, including the widely feared “Iraqi Special Operations Force” (ISOF), which has more than 4,500 US-trained members.

Journalist Shane Bauer recently asked the ISOF’s principal trainer, Brig. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, how long the U.S. military would remain involved with the ISOF. “We are going to have a working relationship for a while,” Trombitas replied.

Disturbingly, he made no mention of the end-of-2011 deadline. So it looks as though the U.S. government plans to stay involved in Iraqi affairs, at many different levels, for quite some time to come.

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1. IRAQ: Questions Remain About the U.S. Role « Weekly Middle East … | Youth Political Blog - July 6, 2009

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