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Operation endless occupation

December 14, 2007 | Pages 4 and 5

WITHIN THE Washington political and media establishment, the verdict is virtually unanimous: The Bush surge of troops worked, and Iraq is headed in a positive direction. But a closer look at the situation tells a different story.

MICHAEL SCHWARTZ regularly analyzes the U.S. occupation of Iraq for such Web sites as TomDispatch and Huffington Post. His book on Iraq will be published next year by Haymarket Books. Here, he answers Socialist Worker's questions about the Bush surge and its consequences.

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THERE'S A steady drumbeat in the media claiming that the Bush administration's surge has finally accomplished its goals, and violence has declined in Iraq as a result. Is that really true? Is violence down? And does this mean that the surge did work?

THERE'S NO accurate report anywhere on levels of violence. We only have what meager reports come from mostly American military sources--and every once in a while, something from the Iraqi government that's useable.

Also, the U.S. occupation forces have had this habit of changing the way they collect data in order to massage the numbers. So, for example, during the surge, they changed their definition of what a civilian casualty was, so that they could say that the number of civilian casualties went down.

But even though we can't speak with any kind of precision, I think we can say, on the basis of all the reports from all sides--from different kinds of eyewitness accounts, from the independent media, and from the reports of the resistance and so on--that the amount of violence is well down in Baghdad and at least some of areas of Iraq.

What else to read

Michael Schwartz's book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context will be published next year by Haymarket Books.

His articles appear regularly on, an indispensable source of information on the occupation of Iraq and the war on terror in general. You can sign up on the home page to get TomDispatch delivered by e-mail. Michael's latest TomDispatch article, "Why Bush Won't Leave Iraq," is a must-read.

Michael's writing also appears on Huffington Post. Plus, he runs a valuable 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).

For an excellent new book on Iraq, see independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, describing his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story. Also newly published is In Praise of Barbarians, a collection of essays on U.S. imperialism and society by Mike Davis.

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


But it isn't the surge that's responsible. In fact, the surge was a failure from the point of view of American purposes in carrying it out. It generated a vast amount of violence, and it wasn't successful in accomplishing the pacification goals the U.S. set for it--unless you think that the goal was to annihilate the communities where the surge took place.

We now have a fair number of reports from the various communities that were the subject of surge invasions, and there was a common American military strategy.

Large numbers of American troops would go in, usually into a Sunni area, and start by fencing the neighborhood in with cement stanchions. The Sunni militias dominant in that area would be trapped inside and have no choice but to fight back. Most of the people would leave. The U.S. would bring in air power, artillery and tanks, and annihilate a fair proportion of the structures.

Along with the U.S. would come Iraqi military and police forces associated with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki--meaning that they were effectively instruments of the Shia militias, usually the Badr Brigade, but at least some were associated with Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, or renegade groups from the Mahdi Army. These groups would, in most places, attempt to systematically evacuate, expel or kill local Sunnis--i.e. they would try to cleanse these neighborhoods of Sunnis.

So what you got out of the surge was a movement of the Sunni population of Baghdad from the north and east to the west and south parts of the city. The northwest part of Baghdad is now mostly Shia--they appear to be the vast majority of people living there, in pretty well-annihilated neighborhoods, insofar as any people can live in them.

Then, in certain areas of southwestern Baghdad, a reverse process has taken place, in which the Sunni militias have become dominant, and they pretty much expelled the Shia. This is a result of the U.S. strategy of creating an alliance with the anti-al-Qaeda Sunni militias. This has resulted in reverse cleansing--in which the Sunnis have expelled the Shia from mixed neighborhoods, mostly in the southwest of Baghdad.

SO THIS reverse cleansing is the consequence of the U.S. government's shift over the course of the year toward building up a relationship with Sunni leaders?

THIS IS a second development that took place as a result of the surge. Nobody is remembering this any more, but when the escalation began, the U.S. announced it was going to surge in both Baghdad and in Anbar province. But it very quickly gave up in Anbar, partly because it didn't have enough troops, and partly because every effort to pacify Anbar cities failed.

So it adopted a new strategy of making an alliance with existing formations among the Sunni militias and the Sunni insurgency.

This involved a kind of capitulation by the United States, which I think is very important to understand. Instead of trying to pacify Sunni communities--various all-Sunni cities and towns, or the Sunni sections of various cities--the U.S. made an alliance with the local militias that it had been fighting before.

The U.S. basically said, "We won't break down doors anymore, we won't be searching for insurgent leaders--and in exchange for that, we want you to suppress al-Qaeda." Since the Sunni militias were interested in suppressing al-Qaeda, too, and had been so for a long time already, that was a fine deal for them.

In the past, what had happened when fighting erupted between local insurgencies and the jihadist groups is that the U.S. took advantage of the conflict to attack both sides--which meant it wasn't really possible for the local insurgents to succeed in expelling the Jihadists. But now, in this situation--especially with the U.S. offering money or arms or sometimes both--these insurgent leaders were able expel the Jihadist groups from local communities very quickly, with very little fighting at all.

In the meantime, of course, these alliances with the U.S. created some very powerful military leaders from these local communities, with political, economic and military control in different areas. So you get a corruption factor that comes along with that.

But over and above this, what's important to understand is that the U.S. has made these "alliances" with people who do not welcome the American presence. They've been very open about this whenever there are interviews with them in the Western media--that their agenda is to get the U.S. out of their neighborhood and out of Iraq altogether.

The other thing these Sunni leaders are very clear about is that they're absolutely, unremittingly hostile to the Maliki government. So you have a situation now in which the United States is riding two horses, neither of which it can control very well, and who are completely antagonistic to the other.

The Maliki government claims--and I think it's a fair statement--that the United States is now building up the strength, autonomy and military capacity of groups that are utterly hostile to the central government, and that this has to mature into some kind of significant confrontation in the not-too-distant future.

So the U.S. military is in the position now of having strengthened its chief adversary in the Sunni areas. If it wants to, say, select certain Sunni areas controlled by these local militias and go in to pacify them again, the fight will be even tougher than in the past.

In other words, the U.S. is buying itself a big problem in the future. It's painting itself into a corner--in which it won't really have the wherewithal to handle the problems it's created. That's a very, very big setback.

Then, in the battle with the Shia insurgency, led by Moktada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, I think the U.S. once again has been outmaneuvered.

The Sadrists, by calling a unilateral ceasefire, have created a situation in which the U.S. can't go into Sadrist-held areas and look for Mahdi Army without a) undermining its relationship with the Maliki government, and b) further antagonizing the local Shia people, who are increasingly aligned with the Sadrists.

In other words, the U.S. has given up on another prong of the surge, which was to wipe out the Madhi Army. Instead, they've accepted a sort of peaceful co-existence with the Mahdi Army. So there are American troops in many of these Shia communities, but they don't do anything.

The reason the violence has declined so much in Iraq is that the linchpin of all the violence was the insistence of the U.S. to go into mainly Sunni, but some Shia, communities and fight a war with local militias. Now, they're not fighting wars with local militias in Sunni communities, and they're not fighting wars with the local militias--mainly, the Sadrists--in Shia communities. Therefore, the initial source of violence has drastically declined.

This also means that the number of car bombs has gone way down. For one thing, the car bombers are, by and large, reactions to American brutality--like when the U.S. destroyed Falluja, for example, and slaughtered huge numbers of people, a small proportion of those affected became suicide bombers. With the decline of American violence, you get a decline of the number of people willing to commit suicide to retaliate. Plus, you have the secondary effect of the local Sunni militias suppressing the Jihadists who organize these car bombers.

Then there are the Shia death squads, which were a combination of government-organized units, originally under the supervision of the U.S. and later at least partially independent, plus less-controlled ones run by the Mahdi Army. The death squads went into Sunni neighborhoods to retaliate for car bombs--to find and kill people they suspected of organizing the bombings that were killing so many Shia.

Their activities have been reduced as well--the government death squads no longer have as many car bombers to retaliate against, and the Mahdis, of course, have been called to adopt a ceasefire for the time being.

So you have a decline of the big battles launched by the U.S. that produce most of the deaths, plus a decline of car bombings and of the activities of the death squads. All three are going down in this period of readjustment. But the nature of the readjustment is highly unstable.

This period of quiescence flows from a willingness of the U.S. military to accept being rolled back and forced into enclaves where it doesn't destroy communities and slaughter civilians while hunting down insurgents. But the U.S. can't possibly hope to pacify the country that way, since the communities are being held by its long-term enemies.

YOU POINT out in one of your recent articles that if the surge really was successful, that ought to be a reason for withdrawal. Instead, success becomes the justification for the U.S. to stay longer. Is that what the propaganda campaign about the surge is really for? To provide a new justification for a long-term U.S. presence?

IF YOU want a thermometer of what the U.S. is up to in Iraq, all you have to do is ask one question: What's happening with the enduring U.S. bases? That's been the measure all along of American intentions.

From the day they arrived in Iraq, they began building these enduring bases, and they've continued to build and develop them--they've just begun building an enduring base in the Gulf, for the Navy. That gives you a sense that their long-term goal--of making Iraq the hub of their Middle Eastern military, economic and political presence--is still intact, and they're still working toward that goal.

The irony of all this is that if they're winning, then there would be a reason to leave--that the country's been pacified, and the U.S. can go home. But in fact, the Bush administration's purpose isn't to leave the country at all, but to create a long-term American presence in the middle of the Middle East so it can dominate Middle East politics and economics over the long run, as part of America's energy and foreign policy.

It's actually when the U.S. can be portrayed as winning the war that the Republicans and Democrats can come to an agreement that we really should stay--because of what the political and economic elite of our country think they can get out of it. The Democrats are much more supportive of staying if it can be portrayed that the United States is actually succeeding.

So I think we have an irony here, as I tried to say in my article--that no matter what happens, we have to stay. If we're losing, we've got to stay because we can't afford to lose, and if we're winning, we've got to stay because, look, we could actually accomplish our plans and dominate the Middle East.

Of course, they can't quite say it that way. But either way, they end up with a big motivation for staying.

WHY WOULD the Democrats move closer and closer to the Republicans when it comes to Iraq? Isn't there an electoral advantage in challenging the Republicans?

I THINK we have to realize that this policy the Bush administration is trying to implement in Iraq was started by a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. In 1979, he announced the creation of the Rapid Deployment Military Force, now called Centcom, which was designed to allow the United States to intervene very quickly in the Middle East.

The need was based on the urgency for the U.S. to maintain full access to Middle Eastern oil, no matter the political or economic instability in the region. Carter used the phrase "by any means necessary," and then he added "including military force."

So we had the establishment of the Carter Doctrine, which has been embraced and elaborated by every subsequent president, and endorsed by every Congressional majority, Democrat or Republican.

That includes Bill Clinton, of course, who we know was very belligerent in the Middle East in all sorts of ways. But Clinton didn't undertake regime change in Iraq, despite the fact that he was urged to by the neo-cons and the Republican Congress. And therein, I think, lay the division within the American political and economic elite--around whether regime change in Iraq and Iran was feasible, and whether, if feasible, it was a viable strategy for managing Middle Eastern politics and economics.

Clearly, the Bush administration came in with a different orientation from the Clinton administration. On January 29, 2001, at the first meeting of the National Security Council, there were Rumsfeld and Cheney saying that the U.S. had to use military force to accomplish regime change in Iraq. From the very beginning, their big innovation, as compared to Clinton, was the advocacy of using the military to accomplish political change in Iraq.

That was their goal, though they didn't feel they could do it without some kind of jarring crisis that would allow them to undertake an invasion. And September 11 provided that crisis.

I think there are lots of people who are part of the political and economic elite of the United States who were very hesitant about this as a strategy. They weren't certain it would work, or if it would buy more problems then it would solve. And of course, they turned out to be right.

But once the invasion took place, there was really no choice among these people but to support it--because you can't say, "Let's have a do-over." Once the United States had overthrown Saddam, this repaired the split and restored the underlying agreement.

Since then, we've heard the Democratic leadership say over and over and over that "now we are in there, we have to finish the job and emerge with our vital interests secured." And they then offer a list: a friendly government, a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East (i.e. a military presence); Iraq as an ally against Iranian regional ambitions; protection of our allies; and, most of all, the ability to prevent any challenge to our "vital interests"--which means that the U.S. has unfettered access to Middle East oil.

Obama gets to say that he was against the invasion before it started, but then he says the same as the others--now that we're in there, we must persevere.

They all use the same phrases--that the U.S. has a vital security interest in the Middle East, that it can't allow its friends in the Middle East see the U.S. driven out, and so on. The reason they share these phrases is that the Democrats and Republicans share the basic goal of American political and economic domination of the Middle East, and have shared it since 1979.

That goal has become more and more pressing as the demand for oil has caught up with, and threatened to surpass, the supply. There is very little surplus capacity now, and therefore any little disturbance of oil flows, whether in the Middle East or not, can trigger a crisis.

So it becomes more and more urgent in these people's minds that the United States be able to force the Middle Eastern countries to double or triple or quadruple their oil production. And with control over oil, the U.S. could then, for example, threaten China with not getting enough oil--and therefore force China to adapt its economic policies to the needs of U.S. multinational corporations.

That goal of getting control of the Middle East spigot hinges on getting control of Iraq. They don't say it that way--they say we need a friendly regime in Iraq, one that will be our ally against Iran and that will be fully committed to increasing the production of oil at a time when the world needs this production to be increased. And, of course, what they mean by the world needing increased production is that the United States needs increased production--that is to say, the U.S. corporate establishment.

So they aren't going to look seriously at alternative fuels and conservation as a way of handling the energy problem. They're going to look for a way to increase the production of oil sufficiently to cover the needs of the U.S. and its allies for the next 15 years or so, and once they accomplish that, only then will they start looking at alternatives. This is what the Cheney energy task force decided on.

So everything depends on getting control of Iraq, ratcheting up production, opening up all of Iraq's undeveloped reserves and finding all the undiscovered reserves, of which there's probably quite a lot, because 25 years have gone by without any exploration. You bring all this on line, you break OPEC, and you use control of world oil production for the benefit of the American government's and the American ruling class' projects in the world.

THIS BIPARTISAN consensus that you're describing has led to some amount of disorientation in the antiwar movement--so, for example, you have Mother Jones doing a cover story suggesting that the antiwar movement shouldn't be saying "out now," but discussing "out how." When you have the two parties coming together like this, what is it going to take to force a change in the situation?

I THINK that the out-now/out-how distinction is probably not the way to describe the question. The question should be whether the United States is getting out or not getting out.

Of course, the sooner the U.S. gets out, the better. It would reduce the amount of violence in Iraq by 80 or 90 percent just to get U.S. troops out of there, and it would allow the Iraqis to find a way to do things.

But the real issue is that the Republicans and Democrats agree that the United States should maintain a long-term dominant presence in Iraq--with a military force of probably 40,000 to 50,000 troops as their ideal number, if they could get to that and still completely control Iraq.

Those troops would be a constant military presence, used as a threat power against other countries in the Middle East--notably Iran, but also Syria, also Saudi Arabia and so on. This is something the Republicans and the Democrats agree on. The only difference is some of them think maybe the U.S. forces can be moved up to Kurdistan--that's John Murtha's position. But they all want an ongoing military presence and political domination of the Middle East.

So what's important is that the antiwar movement has to be against an enduring American presence in the Middle East. It can't just be against the war.

The agreement that Maliki and Bush are signing would provide the United States with Iraq as a base of operations for the Middle East, and even presuming peace in Iraq, that would be a horrible result. It would mean war after war in the Middle East, with the U.S. attempting to extend its power over all these Middle Eastern countries.

Something that people don't necessarily appreciate is that it's in the interest of the Middle Eastern countries to go slowly in terms of extracting oil. The price of oil is going up over the long run. If they extract the oil later, they'll get more money for it--that's in their interest. But the U.S. is trying to force them to extract oil at a breakneck pace--because the U.S. elite needs for that oil to available right now in order to preserve their own economic and political power.

So the U.S. is trying to coerce the Middle East into pumping the oil far more quickly than it would do if left alone. That coercive process isn't going to end with a war in Iraq. They're going to have to coerce Iran, they're going to have to coerce Kuwait, they're going to have to coerce Saudi Arabia.

The Democrats and Republicans have signed on for a long-term project of international bullying by the United States, which will involve small and large wars, gutting our economy in order to maintain the huge military presence, and then all the consequences of global warming.

This is the nub of the disaster--the real consequences of the American presence in the Middle East.

Fortunately, the people of Iraq are doing a fairly good job of resisting right now, but the people of the United States have to force a change in American foreign policy at its very base.

Abandon the project of dominating the Middle East. Abandon the project of doubling the production of Middle Eastern oil to feed the energy behemoth the U.S. has created. Move energy policy in another direction. And abandon the unipolar world, in which the United States aims to be the dominant force that pushes other countries around to fit whatever economic and political policies it's pursuing, however bad they are for all concerned.

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