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From the U.S. offensive to Iraq's new oil law:
Bush's surge of terror

March 9, 2007 | Pages 4 and 5

LEFT-WING Iraq expert Michael Schwartz answers Socialist Worker's questions about the shape of the Bush surge in Iraq and the passage of a new oil law.

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YOU'VE WRITTEN that the U.S. offensive in Haifa Street in Baghdad, which began the day before Bush's January speech announcing the surge, is a sign of things to come. Can you talk about what's taken place so far in the surge?

THERE ARE three prongs to this new offensive.

One is the offensive against Iran, which has been all over the press. In the last few days, there was the first sense that maybe the U.S. is actually going to negotiate with Iran--but only around getting Iran to help it stop the insurgency in Iraq, of course, not around the larger issues.

I think we're still waiting to see what this means--whether this is a very elaborate case of saber-rattling, or they're really undertaking a military attack on Iran, which any number of long and detailed analyses suggest is what is going to happen.

I don't think we know the answer. If we remember back just a little less than a year ago, there was a tremendous amount of talk about an attack on Iran, and with the same kind of convincing evidence, and it didn't happen. So this could still be saber-rattling, and the more sane forces in the Bush administration may still prevail.

What else to read

Michael Schwartz's commentary on Iraq appears regularly at and elsewhere. For his most recent analysis, see "Baghdad surges into hell." He also runs an e-mail listserve with news and analysis on Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East. To subscribe, send an e-mail to [email protected], with the message: "sub iraqviews-l" (you may add your name if you wish).

Riverbend's Baghdad Burning blog is updated regularly--when electricity supplies allow--with an eyewitness account of what life is like for ordinary Iraqis.

For daily news and analysis of the situation in Iraq and the wider Middle East, read Electronic Iraq and Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, recently republished in an updated paperback edition from the American Empire Project with a foreword by Howard Zinn.


I mean sane from their point of view, not from our point of view--in the sense that militarily, politically and in terms of the world political economy, it does seem like a U.S. attack on Iran is going to work out very poorly for American efforts to sustain and amplify its presence in the Middle East.

So this particular piece of the surge policy may just die, or it may escalate into something that completely overshadows everything else that we're talking about.

The second prong is a systematic offensive against the Shia militias in Iraq, which we can take to mean--and I don't think they're hiding it at all--an attempt to eliminate Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army as a force in Iraq.

We should expect them to want to eliminate the Mahdis--because the Sadrists are the most powerful of the Shia groups now, and also the most unrelenting of any group, even among the insurgency, arguing forcefully that the United States should leave Iraq immediately. This is the main Shia force that is actually for the expulsion of the Americans, and for the frustration of the design for a long-term U.S. presence in the Middle East.

We're still waiting to see what they're going to do with this offensive, but there are some very interesting developments that are worth talking about.

But the part of the offensive that has really been activated is the third part--an attempt to definitively take down the Sunni insurgency in Baghdad, and also to do something about Anbar province.

What's new about this is that the operations the United States is mounting now are much more ferocious than what they have done in Baghdad before. They're modeled after the offensives in Falluja and Tal Afar.

They're going into these communities, and they literally go door to door, and do damage to every building. You don't walk in the front door, because that might allow the insurgents to shoot you when you're knocking on the door. So you blow open the front door or the side of the building, and you go in and terrorize whoever is in there.

You do give the community a chance to evacuate, but the way you do it is to first surround the communities, and as the evacuees come out, you don't let any of the men out, because all of the men are considered suspects to be insurgents. Which is not such an unlikely suspicion, because the entire community is on the side of the insurgency.

So the idea is to drive everybody else out of the community, leave only the men there, and then kill or capture all of them. And any time you receive fire, you use overwhelming firepower--either from the ground, using artillery or tanks, or from the air, using gunships and fighter-bombers that come in and drop 500- and 2,000-pound bombs on the most recalcitrant areas. You leave the community in a state of destruction.

In this case, they by and large evacuate the community by doing this--and in the context of current Baghdad politics, that means ethnic cleansing.

The Iraqi military comes in with the United States, and the Iraqi military controls and contains the death squads. So they drive all the Sunnis out of these rebellious communities, and they take displaced Shia--and there are plenty of displaced Shia from all the ethnic violence--and re-colonize that area.

All of the Sunni leadership is saying that the Haifa Street offensive is an exercise in ethnic cleansing--in which the U.S. military has come in and cleaned out the area, and now, Sunnis are being replaced by Shia.

In this context, you can see why the guerrillas are fighting so ferociously. They don't really have the chance to melt into the community, and then melt back in after the U.S. leaves. This new clear-hold-and-build strategy implies that the guerrillas have to fight. Otherwise, they and their families and their neighbors and their friends lose their communities.

So the fighting has been ferocious--even a month later, it's still going on in Haifa Street. This looks like it will drag on, in the way that the offensive in Ramadi dragged on. This is the nature of the new offensive.

If we step back from this for a moment, it can't be the policy of the U.S. to remove all the Sunnis from the city of Baghdad. That's not really a viable policy.

So what we have to assume is that they're trying to use these initial battles of this surge as a form of state terror--to be so incredibly brutal and thorough in their violence that the other Sunnis will give up and stop fighting. The U.S. is saying, "Give up or look at where you're going to be: dispossessed, your community destroyed, and then taken over by Shia, and you homeless--or dead, if you fight."

Back during the battle of Falluja, the American military said rather openly that this was a demonstration battle that would teach the Iraqis the price of resistance. I think we're looking at this kind of effort again.

Now, if you look at how empires operate, these kinds of Carthaginian solutions--what the Romans did in Carthage, burning the whole city down--are generally used by desperate imperial powers that can't figure out a way to win over the population. So they try to use the maximum form of state terrorism to intimidate the population into quiescence.

I think we're seeing that. And what we're seeing in the case of Haifa Street is that it isn't going to work--that people have the resolve to keep fighting.

So this offensive has the makings of its own crisis. Because having tried this and failed, the U.S. either will have destroyed all of Baghdad, or it will have to stop for fear that it will have to destroy all of Baghdad in order to "save it."

Back in the days of Vietnam, when a general actually said that he had to destroy a village in order to save it, this had a similar kind of larger logic--that we destroy this village, and the other villages are now intimidated and won't resist us.

But you destroy Baghdad, and you destroy the whole country. And I think the world will notice that.

AS FAR as the second prong of the offensive is concerned, why do you think the Mahdi Army hasn't challenged the first raids of the U.S. into Sadr City?

THERE ARE probably three elements to this. The most important is that the U.S. has not yet decided to go all out against the Mahdi Army.

In the Sunni areas, they're making these big sweeps through the neighborhoods, looking for suspected resistance fighters, looking for arms caches, going into many if not all homes, terrorizing the population, and arresting the men.

They're doing something very different against the Shia. They've chosen leaders of the Mahdi Army and decided to conduct targeted raids into Sadr City and other Shia areas of Baghdad to capture these key people.

The U.S. has not yet conducted the kind of offensive that was implied by Bush's speech, and it's not clear that it will. If it does, the Mahdis will have no choice but to fight, just as the Sunni insurgents have had no choice but to fight in Haifa Street and elsewhere.

If those kinds of battles begin, I think the U.S.'s goose is cooked in Iraq. Because the Mahdi Army is very powerful. It has a huge base of resources and population, it has the support of the community, and it will be able to conduct a kind of resistance that is at least commensurate with what the Sunnis are doing right now, and maybe something far more ferocious--for example, the ability to mount uprisings in other cities when the U.S. attacks in one city, or other neighborhoods when the U.S. attacks in a single neighborhood.

There might be a magnitude of war possible here that we haven't seen yet. Or it may be just the multiplication of the war into the Shia areas, meaning that there would be no place in the whole country, except the Kurdish areas, where the U.S. forces can go with impunity. And in the Kurdish areas, the deal is that the American forces don't go there at all--that's why the Kurds are happy with the American presence.

So an all-out offensive would really change the nature of the war. But it hasn't happened.

In the past, the Mahdi Army policy has been that even if the U.S. is going in and targeting a single individual, we're going to try to stop them--at least in Sadr City, which is their stronghold. So they've relaxed that policy. They're letting the Americans come in, and this is apparently a negotiated deal.

We can't be sure about this, but it looks like the Mahdis said this is what we're willing to give to avoid a confrontation at this time--and perhaps because there's some deal-making going on between the leadership of the Mahdi Army and the American leadership.

And that brings in the third element, which is that there are some very important strategic divisions within the Mahdi Army. This is very difficult for me to get information on--and, I think, even for people who read and speak Arabic perfectly. It doesn't seem like we're getting a very good fix on the nature of these divisions.

One way to interpret the situation is that Moktada al-Sadr and his leadership councils have decided that they're not really interested in mounting an armed struggle, and they're looking for a way out of it. I'm really doubtful of that, but I can't exclude it as a possibility.

Another interpretation goes back to the Golden Dome bombing a year ago, when one of the holiest shrines for Shiites was blown up. This is when the retaliatory violence started to take place, and the death squads, which had been around for a year by then, multiplied and became highly visible, and hundreds of bodies began appearing all over Baghdad.

Moktada al-Sadr very publicly said that the Americans were to blame for the Golden Dome bombing--not that they literally did it, though there are people who suspect that, but that the Americans created this situation, and the only way to stop it is by expelling the Americans.

But it's quite clear that a large number of Mahdi Army members were involved in this death squad activity.

Now, the Mahdi Army is a guerrilla army, and guerrilla armies have an immense amount of autonomy--we know this from every guerrilla war in history. So Moktada has only a certain kind of control over these guerrilla units, which are spread all around the country, with these local commanders who come to fame because of their prowess as fighters and their ability to outwit the Americans and the British, and these guys have independent ideas about what they want to do.

Now we see the Americans going in and capturing people who are allegedly involved with death squads--and may indeed have been involved with them. One of the ideas that's appearing in the mainstream press, and could in fact be true, is that these names are being cleared with the leadership of the Mahdi Army--that Moktada and his Sadrist leadership are giving the Americans names or signing off on American suggestions that certain people should be arrested. In other words, they're using the Americans as a way of purging their ranks of the renegades.

It doesn't sound like Moktada's style--his style is to say he'll have nothing to do with the Americans. But maybe this is true--because, one, we don't know that much about Moktada; two, people change; and three, this could be part of a larger drift toward abandoning armed struggle and becoming another political party that shares in the wealth and corruption and all the other hallmarks of this current government.

So that's another possibility--that there's a shift going on within the Mahdis, and the U.S. has made some kind of alliance with Moktada or his leadership group. But it would be ironic if the Americans were taking out death squad people because Moktada wanted these people to stop killing Sunnis and start killing Americans.

There are a lot of loose ends with this interpretation that make it difficult to accept. My sense is that a year from now, it'll all be clear. But right now, in many ways, we're just guessing.

WHEN SABRINE al-Janabi came forward and charged that she was raped by the security forces, it caused an outpouring of anger, which the Iraqi blogger Riverbend gave voice to. What do you think this says about the security forces that U.S. officials are so proud of training?

FIRST OF all, I think this whole training idea has got to be debunked.

Who is the U.S. training? It's recruiting people who were basically part of Saddam's army, or would have become part of Saddam's army. They're virtually all Shia at this point. The Mahdi Army is recruiting exactly the same people.

When the Mahdi Army gets in a fight, they're not the most disciplined guys in the world, but they're very brave, they don't shirk from a fight, they don't seem to be self-serving, they're very committed, they follow their officer's lead--all of the things you're supposed to learn from this desperately long training the United States is undertaking with the Iraqi military.

And the Iraqi military doesn't seem to be able to learn. I think we have to conclude that the disintegration and demoralization and corruption of the Iraqi military is an expression of a deep-seated and profoundly political opposition to what these soldiers are doing.

I'm not saying that a lot of these guys are saying they're out to sabotage the American effort. But in a sense, that's what they're doing.

In the same way, the American military refused to fight toward the end of the Vietnam War. You could call that a lack of training--they just didn't have the discipline. You could call it that, but nobody did, because we understood that it was an act of rebellion against the war.

I think that in Iraq, you're looking at a military that doesn't want to fight the war the U.S. wants them to fight. I don't think we should see this as a lack of training.

There is, unfortunately, a long military tradition, among virtually every culture that we know about, of using rape as a military weapon. You kill the men and rape the women.

This is a form of state terrorism--it's just another branch of the same thing the U.S. is doing in Haifa Street. The U.S. is doing it with 500- and 2,000-pound bombs and the indiscriminate slaughter of people who resist their presence.

The Iraqi military is populated by Shia who--probably for good reason--have incredible amounts of anger against Sunni insurgents, whom they blame for car bombings and other attacks in their community.

They don't have the level of commitment needed to go and fight the insurgents, but they are willing--at least a small group of them--to go in there and be utterly brutal when it's safe for them. And the brutality takes this form--of killing the men and raping the women.

This is what Riverbend is trying to say in her article. She starts by pointing out that for this woman to come forward is an absolutely extraordinary political act--it's an attempt to call out what's going on.

Riverbend's second point is that rape has become a part of the political act of state terrorism, and I think we have to see that. We saw it happen in Bosnia, and we've seen it happen in a great many other places, back to the Crusades.

This isn't a religious thing. This is the legacy of war and sexism--the sexist part means that the physical brutality you take out on women is different from the physical brutality you take out on men.

I think we have to see this as a symptom of the fact that American policy has now become state terrorism--an attempt to use the grossest and most horrible forms of violence to tell the Iraqi population that if you don't buckle under to our rule, we are willing to annihilate you.

CAN YOU talk about the new oil law that Iraq's Council of Ministers approved?

THE WAY the press is covering it, the big controversy is over the division of the spoils--they're arguing over which region will get how much, and the fact that the Sunnis don't have much oil, which means they'll be poor compared to everyone else.

There are some fairly substantial issues to be resolved there--and with no apparent way to do it so that you're simultaneously fair to everybody and you also satisfy the leaders who are fighting over the spoils.

We're looking at a bunch of leaders who are all corrupt, and they're not really fighting over the most crucial thing in this law--which is how the extraction of the oil is going to be managed. The key element here is the use of a PSA--a profit-sharing agreement or, as some people call them, a production-sharing agreement.

PSAs are usually used in situations in which the oil is very hard to extract. So in exchange for investing vast amounts of money in a problematic enterprise, the oil company gets a tremendous proportion of the profits--at least at the beginning. They also get control of the extraction process, which means that they're controlling the spigots--they get to decide how much is going to get pumped at any particular moment, and who it will be sold to.

In essence, they're put in charge of the oil field, and they operate it as though they own it for the duration of the contract, which ranges between 20 and 40 years. So in a sense, you're not privatizing the oil fields, but you are granting the exploration and extraction company the privileges of ownership.

This will be the first time since about 1980 that a PSA has been signed in the Middle East. They're usually only used where the extraction is incredibly difficult. The Iraqi fields are exactly the opposite. The average extraction price for a barrel of oil is about $1, and it's selling for $60, so you can see what the deal is.

People who have looked into it say that under the new Iraqi law, for the first number of years, the oil company given the PSA contract will get 70 percent of the profits--until they recoup their expenses, which they are keeping track of.

The average share of profits in other contracts in the Middle East right now is 10 percent. So the oil companies will be getting seven times the average. At the end of the 70 percent period--and that time will basically be set by the company, not by the Iraqis--the profit rate will go down to 20 percent, just twice the going rate.

This law was basically written by the United States before they invaded Iraq. They've been bandying it around and arguing over who would get to administer it--whether it would be the central or the federal governments and so forth. But this fundamental piece of it--the use of PSA contracts--has apparently been pretty much untouched through the entire process.

There's been any number of long and detailed analyses showing how completely unprecedented this is. They say that they have to give this kind of deal in order to get the oil companies to operate in such a dangerous place as Iraq. But the oil companies are all saying that they aren't going to touch this deal until Iraq is pacified. So they'll get 70 percent of the profits, but only after Iraq is "pacified."

One of the things about this is that without pacification, nothing much is likely to happen. And that's a fortunate thing for the Iraqi people, because the deal they're signing is one that basically returns them to the old days of the 1950s and '60s, when all this oil was pumped out of their country, and none of the proceeds remained.

Even in the most corrupt and horrible systems, like in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates, the local ruling class is reinvesting at least some of the oil money back into the economy, so there's something to show for it.

The deal that's being set up here, if enacted, would make Iraq look like some of these African countries with tremendous deposits of tungsten and diamonds and so on--in which the arrangements are set up to take all the wealth and suck it right out of the country, and the people of the country never even get a smell of it.

That's what the possibility is. So of all the things the Americans have done in Iraq, if they succeed in doing this, it will be the most devastating. We're talking about 600,000 to 700,000 people killed so far--this will be more devastating. We're talking about 2 million people as refugees--this will be more devastating.

That's if they get away with it. There's a long way to go before they do. Because, first of all, these oil companies are very self-protective, and they certainly don't want to get their people killed, even for that kind of a boon.

They also understand that if this Iraqi government can't survive, the successor government is likely to be made up of Sadrists or Sunni insurgents or both, and therefore will just abrogate the deals--say that the deals were done by a puppet government, and we don't honor them. Maybe Iraq will become an international pariah if they do this--but you know that the Iranians will welcome them. And the Chinese are certainly going to be willing to buy the oil.

So I don't think that the oil law being signed means the Iraqis are doomed. They'll only be doomed if this law is actually enforced.

A LOT people are hoping that the Democrats--whether it's Barack Obama or John Murtha--will step up and stop the occupation. But you've written that their plans are really just pursuing the same aim of U.S. domination of the Middle East in a different way.

ALL YOU have to do is read these proposals carefully. The two most important recent ones to my eye have been the Iraq Study Group report, and Barack Obama's policy statement, which he issued last November and has stood behind, with some modifications, ever since.

I think it's very important to look at these things carefully. I think the basic American attitude starts with the idea that Bush went into Iraq in order to, say, democratize the Middle East, or to find weapons of mass destruction that he sincerely believed were there, or to knock out to Saddam because he believed at some level that Saddam would be a danger.

Because these highly visible arguments were made to justify the invasion, people think that these must be the reasons for the invasion. It follows, then, that all we need is get somebody into office who's willing to say, "Okay, I give up--we can't establish democracy, we didn't find WMDs, let's just get the hell out and leave the place alone. We can feel a little guilty about leaving Iraq in such a bad place, but it's better than staying."

But when you look at the way American political leaders think, they're much more committed to Bush's larger goals. If you read Barack Obama, he says that this policy isn't working, but he thinks that if we work it right, we can still achieve our ends.

And the ends he offers are fairly straightforward. He wants America's enemies to see the U.S. as an overwhelmingly formidable military foe--and if we leave Iraq, it will show that the U.S. can be defeated militarily, and we can't allow that. He wants American influence in the Middle East to be very strong. And he's very concerned about Iran as an independent regional force, and wants the Iranian government to know that we're not going to let them get their way.

He's signed on for those goals. He says: Okay, we can't do this with the surge, but we can do it by a strategic redeployment of American soldiers, keeping the pressure on, and making sure that the Iraqi government does its job of fighting the insurgencies and stopping the Mahdi Army from prevailing.

The goals remain the same. You can't let the Mahdis take over--we're gone, and they're friends with Iran. You can't let the insurgents take over--we're gone, and you've got a place that's enormously hostile to the U.S., plus you've proven to the rest of the world that the U.S. power in the Middle East has been undermined. He's not giving up on the fundamental goals, which is subduing the insurgency and de-fanging the Mahdis.

Then, the question arises: if redeployment doesn't work, what do you do then? Do you give up on this larger goal? He's not saying that--he's saying that we have to find a way to pursue this larger goal.

He's still advocating for the United States to attempt to become the predominant power in the Middle East, to install a government in Iraq that's friendly to the U.S., and to do everything it can to control the growing power of Iran in the Middle East. With these goals, there is no room for withdrawal, which would result in all three being definitively undermined.

Those three things are the minimal things he feels have to be done. And if you look at the Iraq Study Group, those same three goals emerge, along with the same commitment to maintaining a forceful U.S. presence in Iraq and the Middle East.

None of the high-profile critics of the war have adopted a position that says withdrawal is an option. They don't, for example, say that America's standing in the world--which is something they care about--will be irreparably undermined if we continue this war, and that we should therefore accept the current level of damage instead of being defeated year after year.

They haven't come to that conclusion. They could--it's not impossible for the leaders of the American political elite to come to the conclusion that they have more to lose by pursuing this war than they have to gain by it.

But there's no sign that any of the U.S. political leadership has adopted that logic--that there's more to lose from staying than there is from leaving.

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