Barack Obama was lucky in the timing of his visit to Iraq. He arrived just after the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had rejected a new Status of Forces Agreement which would have preserved indefinitely the US right to conduct military operations inside the country. The Iraqi government was vague about when it wanted the final withdrawal of US troops, but its spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh declared that they should be gone by 2010; this fitted Obama’s promise to withdraw ‘one to two’ combat brigades a month for 16 months. Suddenly, John McCain’s belief that US troops should stay until some undefined victory looked impractical and out of date.

The Iraqi government seemed almost surprised by its own decisiveness. It is by no means as confident as it pretends to be that it can survive without US backing, but it unexpectedly found itself riding a nationalist wave. A poll by ABC News, the BBC and other television networks in February showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis think the presence of US forces makes the country less secure. The only large pocket of support for the US occupation is among the Kurds, who make up about a fifth of the population. Among Iraqi Arabs, some 97 per cent of the Sunni and 82 per cent of the Shia say they have no confidence in US forces.

The unpopularity of the occupation has been the fundamental political fact in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein five years ago, but American and British politicians, diplomats and soldiers have consistently failed to recognise it. In response to poll figures, which have shown year after year that Iraqis hate the occupation, they insist that ‘in private’ Iraqis say they don’t want an ‘immediate’ withdrawal; they then go on to claim, in the face of all the evidence, that this means that Iraqis secretly don’t want the occupation forces to leave at all. This kind of self-deception leads to American commentators speaking of the extent and timing of US troop withdrawal as if it were purely an American decision, to be decided by the outcome of the presidential election. One of the few US commentators to have an understanding of Iraqi politics, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, writes that ‘Iraqis may be deeply divided along sectarian, ethnic, tribal and factional lines,’ but they nevertheless ‘have a national consciousness, a great deal of national pride, and they do not want to be “occupied” or have a US presence any longer than necessary’. Iraqi nationalism was at a low ebb during the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad in 2006-7, but as sectarian slaughter has declined it has begun to reassert itself.

There is an edgy mood both in the Iraqi government and among ordinary Iraqis. The number of dead bodies being picked up in the streets of Baghdad is well down on a year ago, but nobody knows how long this will last. ‘For the moment life is better, but everybody has fear in their hearts,’ a Shia woman said to me. And the fall in violence is only comparative: 654 Iraqis were killed in May, 76 per cent fewer than the year before, but this still makes Iraq the most dangerous country in the world. Alcohol is once again openly on sale, showing that shopkeepers are no longer as terrified as they once were of Islamic militiamen. But Sunni and Shia still don’t visit each other’s districts. Baghdad is still divided into sectarian ghettos sealed by high concrete walls. The 2.4 million refugees who fled to Syria and Jordan are not returning in large numbers. When they do come back it is often because residence visas have become more difficult to obtain. The Shia, always the majority in Baghdad, seized most of the rest of the capital two years ago in a savage war waged by assassins and death squads. There is no sign of these demographic changes being reversed. When Sunni or Shia try to get their houses back in areas that have been purged and taken over by the other community, they are in immediate danger of being killed. When one couple, both Shia, went last month to visit the house from which they had fled in the Sunni al-Mekanik district of Dora in south Baghdad they were immediately shot dead and their driver beheaded. The militias have left the streets, but they haven’t gone very far.

Visiting dignitaries to the Green Zone, whether George Bush, Gordon Brown or Barack Obama, seldom realise the extent of the military operations required to protect them or the impact of these operations on Iraqis, and so get an exaggerated impression of the progress towards normality in Baghdad. Last year, US embassy employees – this in the heart of the Green Zone – complained that they had been ordered not to wear body armour and helmets if they were photographed or filmed standing beside John McCain because their get-up might seem to contradict his claim that Baghdad was a safer place than was being reported. When Dick Cheney visited there was a ban on sounding the siren which gives the Green Zone a few seconds’ warning of incoming rocket or mortar rounds: Cheney’s staffers thought that the siren’s menacing wail might suggest to American television viewers that all was not as well in Iraq as the vice-president was claiming. When Obama visited on 21 July a large part of central Baghdad was closed down to guarantee his safety, deep though he was inside the Green Zone. A friend of mine called Gaylan had taken his car to get its air conditioner fixed in the Karada district of east Baghdad when US troops stopped all traffic at 12.15 p.m. Caught in the torrid heat of the Iraqi summer, he and the other drivers were not allowed to move again until six in the evening. ‘There were helicopters overhead to control the sky,’ Gaylan said. ‘They blocked Abu Nawas Street opposite the Green Zone and searched the houses there. Then they moved to the Babylon Hotel and took up positions on the rooftops. I was stuck in the traffic the whole evening.’ While he waited Gaylan had plenty of time to ask the other drivers what they thought of Obama and his visit. They were only too happy to tell him. ‘Why does it matter to us if a white man or a black man wins the election?’ one irate driver asked. ‘Obama and Bush are two faces on the same currency, an American currency.’ Another asked: ‘Why does he come here? What will he do for us? Will he fix the electricity? He is just coming because of the election.’ A third was sceptical about Obama’s plans. ‘He says he’ll withdraw his troops from Iraq, but I don’t believe it.’ Why, if they were going to leave so soon, had the Americans spent so long planning their takeover of Iraq?

Not all official visitors even make it to Baghdad. King Abdullah of Jordan had been expected to make his first official visit to Iraq a week before Obama. His trip was of some importance, since in the past Abdullah has warned of the danger of revolutionary Shiism sweeping through the Middle East. Along with other Sunni Arab rulers, he watched with horror as, after the overthrow of Saddam’s predominantly Sunni regime, a Shia-Kurdish government was established in Baghdad under American protection. His visit to open a new Baghdad embassy, replacing the one blown up in August 2003, was to be a signal that Sunni Arab rulers were beginning to accept that the new Iraqi government was here to stay. According to Iraqi police, the day before the king was to arrive, Jordanian security ran a dummy convoy of armoured black four-wheel drives through the al-Mansur district to test the safety of the route. As the convoy sped along the Jordanians heard the sound of gunfire close at hand and feared it was an assassination attempt. ‘In fact,’ an Iraqi army officer with the 6th Division explained, ‘we had sealed off the roads so the king’s convoy could pass, when an old man drove his car from a sub-road onto the main road, so our soldiers began to shoot into the air to get his attention and make him go back.’ The Jordanians chose not to accept this benign explanation of the gunfire and cancelled the visit.

The departing American commander, General David Petraeus, keeps saying that the fall in violence and the extension of government control in Iraq is ‘fragile and reversible’. His caution is based on experience. In 2004 Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division, appeared to have pacified the northern city of Mosul. But eight months after he left, insurgents took over the city, the police and army changed sides or went home, and thirty police stations were captured along with weapons worth $41 million. It is unlikely that the same thing will happen to the Maliki government. But some Iraqi politicians believe that, if it wanted to, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army could take over half of Baghdad in 48 hours.

For the moment, though, the Sadrists have gone to ground. Muqtada sits in his house in the holy city of Qom in Iran, where he says he is pursuing his religious studies. His strategy is not to be drawn into a fight before the Americans depart or draw down their forces. When crowds attending Sadrist-controlled mosques in Sadr City last month started to tear down barriers placed in the streets by the Iraqi army, it was Sadrist preachers who begged them to go home and avoid a confrontation. Muqtada ‘is not the kind of man’, according to his spokesman Salah al-Obaidi, ‘who plucks the fruit before it is ripe’. But the Iraqi government is keeping up the pressure while it still has the backing of American firepower. Class divisions run deep in the Shia community and the Shia middle class would like to see the Sadrist movement crushed. In Basra men selling cassettes of songs praising Muqtada have been told by the police to throw them away and sell gypsy music instead. In Amara the army is under continual pressure from the Maliki government to arrest any Sadrists they can find. The Sadrist governor has been put under arrest, the province is effectively under martial law and even Sadrists who took advantage of an amnesty are being arrested. But the Sadrists and the Mehdi Army depend ultimately on a core of committed militants who survived much more savage persecution under Saddam. They will be difficult to eliminate. Muqtada himself is still revered in millions of Shia households, though his picture is less evident than it was. Bashir Ali and Ahmed Mohammed, two powerful anti-Sadrist tribal sheikhs from Sadr City, told me that they thought ‘the Sadrist current had lost much of its support in Sadr City and does not have the strength to stage an uprising’. But, rather undermining this confident statement, they said they didn’t dare criticise the Sadrists in public because ‘they would shoot us down the next time we went to the mosque to pray.’

The bitterness between Maliki and the Sadrists is all the greater because it was their members of parliament who made him prime minister. Sadrist ministers withdrew from his government in 2007 because the prime minister hadn’t insisted on a timeline for an American military withdrawal. Sadrist crowds demonstrate every Friday demanding that the troops leave. It’s curious that Maliki’s government is now asking for the same thing as Muqtada. Iraqi nationalism, along with religious revivalism and social populism, is what has given the Sadrists such widespread appeal, and it was largely because Maliki didn’t want to be seen as an American pawn that he objected so vigorously to Bush’s Status of Forces Agreement, which would have replaced the current UN mandate. But even if they wanted to replace him, which they don’t, the Americans have no alternative Iraqi leader available to them. Nor would a change of government be as easy to implement as it was two years ago. At that time the US ambassador helped get rid of Maliki’s predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, by saying that Bush ‘doesn’t want, doesn’t support and doesn’t accept’ that Jaafari should lead the government. Since then the Iraqi state, ramshackle though it is, has gone a long way to reconstitute itself, with more than half a million men under arms and an oil income expected to reach $150 billion next year.

America made a mistake in pushing for a military agreement with Iraq at the time it did. When the US presented its first draft in March, it envisaged simply continuing the occupation with itself as colonial overlord. The agreement was compared by Iraqis to the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, under which Britain retained enough authority to discredit Iraqi governments, which were seen as puppets of the imperial power. ‘What the Americans were offering us in terms of real sovereignty was even less than the British did eighty years ago,’ one Iraqi leader said. At first, the agreement was supported by the pro-American wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which wanted to lock in US support for their present elevated status, as well as by the Kurds. ‘The government lacks faith in itself and wants to be babysat by the US army,’ said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran and influential MP who admits that his feelings as a Kurd are different from his feelings as an Iraqi. He said he thought there had been an attempt to hurry through the agreement – which he opposed – because ‘the US wanted an achievement for this administration to benefit the Republican Party in the elections.’

The failed attempt to reach an agreement helped crystallise Iraqi resentment over the occupation. The military bases, the immunity for US soldiers, the 23,000 Iraqis held prisoner by the US, the ability of US troops to arrest Iraqis and carry out military operations at will: all of this would have been institutionalised and officially sanctioned had the agreement been signed. Nobody – not Maliki, not Washington – expected the nationalist backlash to be as fierce as it was. But there were also other forces at play. The Iranians made it clear that they would not accept the agreement. What proponents of the ‘surge’ like McCain never understood was that its success, in so far that it was successful, depended on Iran’s co-operation; the new agreement would have brought this to an end. ‘The Iranians are implacably opposed to the deal,’ said the much maligned but highly astute Ahmed Chalabi, after he had seen the Iranian leaders in Tehran. ‘It consecrates America’s massive presence here and threatens their security. They say this will be a “non-security agreement”.’ Maliki’s increasing willingness to stand up to the US may well be the result of a private assurance from Iran that he will not face an uprising by the Mehdi Army in southern Iraq if he does so. The struggle for power in Iraq is entering a new phase. The US may not have got the agreement it wanted, but it remains the dominant military power in the country and still largely controls the Iraqi army. Whether Obama or McCain wins the presidential election in the US the battle over who really rules in Baghdad will continue.

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