America Concedes

Patrick Cockburn writes about the significance of the new Status of Forces Agreement

On 27 November the Iraqi parliament voted by a large majority in favour of a security agreement with the US under which its 150,000 troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities, towns and villages by 30 June next year and from all of Iraq by 31 December 2011. The Iraqi government will take over military responsibility for the Green Zone in Baghdad, the heart of American power in Iraq, in a few weeks’ time. Private security companies will lose legal immunity. US military operations will only be carried out with Iraqi consent. No US military bases will remain after the last American troops leave in 2011 and in the interim the US military is banned from carrying out attacks on other countries from within Iraq.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed after eight months of rancorous negotiations, is categorical and unconditional. America’s bid to act as the world’s only super-power and to establish quasi-colonial control of Iraq, an attempt that began with the invasion of 2003, has ended in failure. There will be a national referendum on the new agreement next July, but the accord is to be implemented immediately, so the poll will be largely irrelevant. Even Iran, which had denounced the first drafts of the SOFA, fearing that any agreement would enshrine a permanent US presence in Iraq, now says that it will officially back the new security pact after the referendum: a sure sign that America’s main rival in the Middle East sees the accord as marking the end of the occupation and the end of any notion of Iraq being used as a launching-pad for military assaults on its neighbours.

Astonishingly, this momentous agreement was greeted with little surprise or interest outside Iraq. On the day that it was finally passed by the Iraqi parliament international attention was focused on the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. For some months polls in the US have shown that the economic crisis has replaced the Iraqi war in the minds of American voters. In any case, Bush has declared so many spurious milestones to have been passed in Iraq over the years that when a real turning point is reached people are naturally sceptical about its significance. The White House is anyway so keen to keep quiet about what it has agreed in Iraq that it hasn’t even published a copy of the SOFA in English. Some senior officials in the Pentagon privately criticise Bush for conceding so much, but the American media are fixated on the incoming Obama administration and no longer pay much attention to the doings of Bush and Co.

The last-minute delays to the accord were not really to do with the Americans. It was rather that the leaders of the Sunni Arab minority, seeing Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-Kurdish government about to fill the vacuum created by the US departure, wanted to wring as many concessions as they could in return for their support. Around three-quarters of the 17,000 prisoners held by the Americans are Sunni and their leaders wanted them released or at least to have some guarantee that they wouldn’t be mistreated by the Iraqi security forces. They also asked for an end to de-Baathification, which is directed primarily at the Sunni community. Only the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held out against the accord, declaring it a betrayal of independent Iraq. The ultra-patriotic opposition of the Sadrists has been important because it has made it difficult for the other Shia parties to agree to anything less than a complete American withdrawal if they wanted to avoid being portrayed as US puppets in the provincial elections at the end of next month, or the parliamentary elections later in the year.

The SOFA finally agreed is in almost every way the opposite of the one the US started to negotiate in March, which was largely an attempt to continue the occupation under similar terms to the UN mandate that expires at the end of the year. Washington overplayed its hand. The Iraqi government was growing stronger as a result of the end of the Sunni Arab uprising. The Iranians had helped restrain the Mahdi Army, Muqtada’s powerful militia, allowing the government to regain control of Basra and Sadr City, which amounts to almost half of Baghdad, from the Shia militias. Maliki became more confident, realising that his military enemies were dispersing and that, in any case, the Americans had no real alternative but to support him. The US has been politically weak in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein – not surprisingly, given that it has so few real friends in the country aside from the Kurds. The leaders of the Iraqi Shia, 60 per cent of the total population, might ally themselves to Washington to gain power, but they never intended to share power with the US in the long term.

The occupation has always been unpopular in Iraq. Foreign observers and some Iraqis are often misled by the hatred with which Iraqi communities regard each other into underestimating the strength of Iraqi nationalism. Once Maliki came to believe that he could survive without US military support he was able to spurn American proposals until an unconditional withdrawal was conceded. In any case, by the end of August it seemed quite likely that Obama, whose withdrawal timetable is not so different from his own, would be the next president. Come next year’s elections, Maliki can present himself as the man who ended the occupation. His critics, notably the Kurds, think that success has gone to his head, but there is no doubt that the new security agreement has strengthened him politically.

It may be that, living in the heart of the Green Zone, Maliki has an exaggerated idea of what his government has achieved. In the Zone there is access to clean water and electricity while in the rest of Baghdad people get no more than three or four hours’ electricity a day. Security is certainly better than it was during the civil war between Sunni and Shia of 2006-7, but the improvement is relative. The monthly death toll has dropped from 3000 a month at its worst to 360 Iraqi civilians and security personnel killed this November, though these figures may understate the casualty toll since not all bodies are found. Iraq is still the most dangerous place in the world. On 1 December, the day I started writing this article, two suicide bombers killed 33 people and wounded dozens more in Baghdad and Mosul. Iraqis are cynical about the government’s claim to have restored order. ‘We are used to the government always saying that things have become good and the security situation has improved,’ says Salman Mohammed Jumah, a primary school teacher in Baghdad. ‘It is true security is a little better, but the government leaders live behind concrete barriers and don’t know what is happening on the ground. They only go out in their armoured convoys. We no longer have sectarian killings by ID cards, but Sunni are still afraid to go to Shia areas and Shia to Sunni.’

Security has improved now that there are police and military checkpoints everywhere, but sectarian killers have also upgraded their tactics. There are fewer suicide bombings but many more small ‘sticky bombs’ placed underneath vehicles. Everybody checks their car before getting in. I try to keep away from notorious choke points, such as Tahrir Square or the entrances to the Green Zone, where a bomber can wait for a target to get stuck in traffic before making a move. The checkpoints and the walls dividing different communities bring Baghdad close to paralysis even when there aren’t any bombs. It can take two or three hours to travel a few miles. The bridges over the Tigris are often blocked, and this has got worse recently because the soldiers and the police have a new toy, a box which looks like a transistor radio with a short aerial sticking out horizontally. It’s supposed to detect vapour from explosives when pointed at a car and may well do so, but since it also responds to vapour from alcohol or perfume it’s worse than useless as a security aid.

Iraqi state television and government-backed newspapers never stop saying that life in the country is improving by the day, which would be convincing if in addition to improved security there were more electricity, clean water and jobs. ‘The economic situation is still very bad,’ says Salman Mohammed Jumah, the teacher. ‘Unemployment affects everybody and you can’t get a job unless you pay a bribe. There is no electricity and nowadays we have cholera again so people have to buy expensive bottled water and only use the water that comes out of the tap for washing.’ Not everybody is so downcast, but life in Iraq is still extraordinarily hard. The best way to gauge how much ‘better’ it is, is by the willingness of the 4.7 million refugees to go home – one in five Iraqis now lives elsewhere, inside or outside Iraq. By October only 150,000 had returned; some of those who come to assess the situation decide to remain in Damascus or Amman. One middle-aged Sunni businessman who came back from Syria for two or three weeks said: ‘I don’t like to be here. In Syria I can go out in the evening to meet friends in a coffee bar. It is safe. Here I am forced to stay in my home after 7 p.m.’

The degree of optimism or pessimism felt by Iraqis depends very much on whether they have a job, whether or not that job is with the government, which community they belong to, their social class and the area they live in. All these factors are interlinked. Most jobs are with the state, which reputedly employs some two million people. The private sector is very feeble. Despite talk of reconstruction there are almost no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline. Since the Shia and Kurds control the government, it is difficult for a Sunni to get a job and probably impossible without a reference from someone connected to a political party in the government. Optimism is greater among the Shia. ‘There is progress in our life,’ says Jafar Sadiq, a Shia businessman married to a Sunni in the Shia-dominated Iskan area of Baghdad. ‘People are co-operating with the security forces. I am glad the army is fighting the Mahdi Army, though they aren’t finished yet. Four Sunni have reopened their shops in my area. It is safe for my wife’s Sunni relatives to come here. The only things we need badly are electricity, clean water and municipal services.’ But, when she was out of her husband’s hearing, his wife, Jana, admitted that she had secretly warned her Sunni relatives against coming to Iskan ‘because the security situation is unstable.’ She teaches at Mustansiriyah University in central Baghdad, which a year ago was controlled by the Mahdi Army, with the result that its Sunni students fled. ‘Now the Sunni students are coming back,’ she says, ‘though they are still afraid.’

They have good reasons to be afraid. Baghdad is divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves defended by high concrete blast walls, often with a single entrance and exit. The sectarian slaughter is much less than it was, but it’s still dangerous for returning refugees to try to reclaim their old house in an area in which they are a minority. In a Sunni district in west Baghdad a Shia husband and wife with their two daughters went back to their house to find it gutted, with the furniture gone and electric sockets and water pipes torn out. They decided to sleep on the roof. A Sunni gang reached them by way of a neighbouring building, cut off the husband’s head and threw it into the street. ‘The same will happen to any other Shia who comes back,’ they told the man’s wife. But even without such atrocities Baghdad would remain divided: the memory of the mass killings of 2006-7 is too fresh and there is an underlying fear that they could start all over again.

Iraqis have a low opinion of their elected representatives, frequently denouncing them as an incompetent kleptocracy. The administration is dysfunctional. ‘Despite the fact that the Department of Labour and Social Affairs is meant to help the millions of poor Iraqis, I discovered that they had spent only 10 per cent of their budget,’ an independent member of parliament, Qassim Daoud, reported. This isn’t entirely the government’s fault. Iraqi society, its administration and economy have been shattered by 28 years of war and sanctions. Few other countries have been put under such intense and prolonged pressure. In 1980 the eight-year Iran-Iraq War began, followed by the disastrous Gulf War of 1991, 13 years of sanctions and then the five and a half years of conflict since the US invasion. Ten years ago UN officials were already saying they couldn’t repair the country’s faltering power stations because they were so old that spare parts were no longer made for them.

Iraq is full of signs of the gap between the rulers and the ruled. When I talked to people on the street in Baghdad in October many of them mentioned their fear of cholera, which had just started to spread from Hilla province, south of Baghdad. Forty per cent of people in the capital don’t have access to clean drinking water. The origin of the epidemic was the purchase of out-of-date water purification chemicals from Iran by corrupt officials. Everybody talked about the cholera except in the Green Zone where people had scarcely heard of the epidemic.

The Iraqi government will become stronger as the Americans begin to depart. It will also be forced to take full responsibility for the failings of the Iraqi state. This comes at a bad moment for the government because the price of oil, the state’s only source of revenue, has fallen to $50 a barrel, when the budget assumed it would be $80. Many state salaries – those of teachers, for example – were doubled on the strength of this estimate. Communal differences are still largely unresolved. Although friction between Sunni and Shia, bad though it is, is less than it was two years ago, hostility between Arabs and Kurds is deepening. The departure of the US military frightens many Sunni, who will be at the mercy of the majority Shia. But it is also an incentive for the three main communities to come to an agreement about their relations with one another: there will soon be no Americans left to stand between them. America’s troops will depart, leaving behind a ruined country.