Sovereign Iraq

Sovereignty, it seems, begins at home -- and home is wherever the President and his associates hang out.

| Mon Jul. 26, 2004 2:00 AM EDT
Sovereign-Iraq quote of the week: "Military analysts talk about 'standing up' a new army as if it's as simple as placing toy soldiers on a board. But as the helicopter churns over Baghdad, [Lt. Gen. David] Petraeus likens the process of military mobilization to moving a herd of cattle across a range. There are so many people and logistics, so many parts that have to be assembled, so many things that could go wrong. All a military leader can do is put the pieces in place . . . and wait." (The Washington Post's David Ignatius on a visit to Gen Petraeus, who is in charge of creating "an elite new 'Intervention Force'" for the interim Iraqi administration, part of a police force and army "that can stabilize Iraq." This Time, Maybe a Real Army)

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Sovereign Iraq

Believe it or not, not so long ago Iraq had a military quite capable of fighting aggressive wars of all sorts and it was trained by… gasp… Iraqis. Not an American general in sight. But the thought that Iraqis could create an Iraqi military capable of "stabilizing" Iraq seems to have been beyond the ken of the Bush administration. Instead General Petraeus is now creating an "independent" Iraqi force geared to what we imagine our needs in Iraq to be -- in other words a force of dependents. That elite Intervention Force of the general's, writes Ignatius, "will eventually have about 6,500 Iraqi soldiers who can move quickly to suppress insurgencies in urban areas, part of an overall army of about 70,000. Because their duty will be more hazardous, the members of this elite force will get about $100 more a month."

The last time American-trained Iraqi battalions were sent into battle against fellow Iraqis, only the Kurdish-manned formations were willing to fight. Our solution to that unexpected crisis, it seems, is to toss a few extra bucks at Iraqi soldiers willing to engage in urban warfare to suppress other Iraqis. Ignatius joins quite a crowd of American reporters and pundits who apparently have no idea that such tactics were once the coin of the realm of colonial regimes with their "native" armies. But we can't be creating a "native force," can we? Not even if an American general is in command of the process? It's a matter of self-definition. Americans are incapable of such thoughts or such acts. This is just another case -- as Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz like to say -- of putting training wheels on the bike so the Iraqi kid doesn't fall off on the first peddle down the block.

In addition to that "elite force," what other signs of sovereignty have been evident lately in General Petraeus's "sovereign Iraq"? Somini Sengupta of the New York Times reports that a worthy sign of sovereignty has indeed appeared: "There is one thing the sovereign state of Iraq can offer its citizens today," she writes, "and Iraqis are banging down the doors to get their hands on it: a passport out of the country… Jobless, rattled, fed up, Iraqis are dreaming of getting out." Finally, sovereign Iraq can offer those capable of paying or landing a job abroad a way out other than a porous border -- and the result is a significant brain drain. "It is generally believed in Baghdad that around 1,000 Iraqis leave the country every day for Jordan and Syria because the security situation is intolerable," wrote former British ambassador Oliver Miles in the Guardian -- and that's quite understandable given the other horrific brain drain underway -- the program of assassination of educators and intellectuals countrywide by unknown elements.

Here's another sign of sovereignty. The new Iraqi government actually gets to spend some of its oil money as it pleases -- whoops, my mistake, it turns out that sovereign America, in the form of the former Coalition Provisional Authority, already spent most of it (and much of the rest comes with strings attached). Remember before the war when our President, our secretary of defense and other top officials (responding to the claim that this was an oil war) spoke solemnly of oil as Iraq's sacred "patrimony" to be carefully preserved for the Iraqi people? And then, of course, there was the respect for that "patrimony" in the way American forces first moved into Baghdad. They let the whole administrative structure (and much of the cultural patrimony) of the country be looted or go up in flames -- with the singular exception of the Oil Ministry which went untouched because there they posted guards.

As Simon Tisdale of the British Guardian reports, the United States then set up the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) "as the depository for Iraq's multi-billion-dollar oil revenues and [that] was administered… by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority -- with notional UN oversight." And then, it seems, the fun began. Of course, Paul Wolfowitz had always claimed that the country's reconstruction could easily be financed with Iraq's oil moneys. In the spring of 2003, for instance, he told Congress "that the Second Iraq War wouldn't be overly expensive for American taxpayers. 'We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon…' Asked how much the Second Iraq War would cost, Wolfowitz stuttered out: 'And my – a rough recollection – well I'm – the oil revenues of that country could bring between 50- and 100-billion dollars over the course of the next two or three years.'" It turns out he couldn't have been more serious.

Though Congress appropriated $18.4 billion for Iraq's reconstruction, here's how the figures actually fell out at the moment of "transition," according to Tisdale: "Nearly all of the $20bn in the DFI was spent or allocated by June 28 -- but only 2% of the $18.4bn promised by the US for reconstruction was actually spent." One stalwart Congressional Democrat, Henry Waxman, who has long been on the White House case, continues to insist that Congress look into this record of spending, especially "the [Bush] administration's last-minute 'draw-down' of billions of dollars from the DFI for unspecified expenses."

Oh and here's a surprise: According to Tisdale, "Halliburton was the largest single recipient of Iraqi oil funds during the occupation, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' figures released last month. And among US politicians, according to the Center for Public Integrity, Mr Bush has been the largest single recipient of US oil and gas industry campaign contributions since 1998 -- his total stands at $1,724,579." (The Center in its report adds, "The industry has lavished more than $440 million over the past six years on politicians, political parties and lobbyists in order to protect its interests in Washington, … Just over 73 percent of the industry's campaign contributions have gone to Republican candidates and organizations.")

In the you-can't-keep-a-good-energy-company-down category, Halliburton just can't stay out of the news these days. A case involving its operations in Axis-of-Evil associate, Iran, has just surfaced thanks to "a grand jury investigation into whether the oil services giant violated federal sanctions by operating in Iran while Vice President Dick Cheney was running the company." A couple of congressional Democrats have been pursuing this one. (And here's my nominee for funniest line of the week: "Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt called the allegations against Cheney baseless, and accused Democrats of trying to use Halliburton as a distraction." Maybe I should have put Halliburton in the you-can't-keep-a-distracting-energy-company-down category.)

Any way you look at it, sovereignty, it seems, begins at home -- and home is wherever the President and his associates hang out. But the new Iraqi administration shouldn't despair. In true Hollywood fashion, sovereignty may, at the last second, be riding to the rescue! Just recently, George Bush made sure that the Allawi regime could officially buy "defense articles and services" from the Pentagon and American corporations. In that decisive, Star-Trekkie manner of his, he simply, "Made it so." His official words:

"Pursuant to the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, including section 503(a) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, and section 3(a)(1) of the Arms Export Control Act, as amended, I hereby find that the furnishing of defense articles and services to Iraq will strengthen the security of the United States and promote world peace. You are authorized and directed to report this finding to the Congress and to publish it in the Federal Register."

The Iraqis must be independent, otherwise how could they buy our "defense articles and services" (and, you might well ask, with what)? Still, at least in theory, the sovereign Iraqi government, weaponized and with passports available, is ready to roll.

Sovereign Iraq, as American soldiers see it

This week, the Boston Globe's Bryan Bender reported another ugly landmark passed: the 10,000 wounded mark. Imagine that, 10,000 wounded Americans in a war our military and political leadership now say may last "years." Unfortunately, were it not for Garry Trudeau wounding his character BD in a comic-strip version of Iraq, the impact of our wounded -- because of better body armor the wounded-to-dead ratio has risen compared to previous American wars -- would have remained of late largely a back-page story. This last week, the TV networks duly noted that American deaths had passed 900 on their upward creep toward the 1,000 mark this fall, but generally deaths in Iraq have been repackaged as inside-the-paper stories, as the canny Robert Dreyfuss commented in "900 and counting," his July 22nd post at The Dreyfuss Report:

"The fact that four Americans were killed in Iraq on Tuesday found itself mentioned in the 19th paragraph on an inside page of the New York Times today, meaning that not only did those two marines and two soldiers die for nothing, but their deaths won't even contribute much to the rising American disgust over Bush's Iraq misadventure. "

It was good then to see Bender's piece, "US casualty rate high since handover, Long guerrilla war is feared in Iraq," which pointed out (as Tomdispatch had the previous week) that American post-transition deaths have been higher than our pre-transition ones. He added: "The relatively high rate of US military casualties has dimmed hope that the handover of power to the Iraqi government would help stabilize the country and reduce pressure on US soldiers." This is -- or should be -- front-page national news.

Here then are snatches of commentary from our endangered troops in American-occupied Iraq. Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter, reporting on American troops stationed near Ramadi in Anbar Province in the Sunni Triangle, offered the following (Among soldiers, growing doubts about mission):

"'I'm tired of every time we go out the gate, someone tries to kill me,' said Staff Sgt. Sheldon Rivers… 'When people come over here, where do they stay? In the Green Zone. I call it the Safe Zone,' he said, referring to the secure area in Baghdad where the government is housed. 'They miss the full picture.'

"What is the full picture?

"'It's just like the West,' Jones said, 'when we were trying to settle it with the Indians.'

"He wouldn't elaborate.

"'It means that we have to kill all of them,' said a captain standing nearby, half-joking."

James Meek, a journalist for the British Guardian, spent some days on patrol with a U.S. Marine platoon near al-Karmah, a town between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah west of Baghdad. Here are comments found in his two-parter, Five days in the life of an invisible war:

"Another [Marine]: 'I just wonder why we can't come to an agreement with the fuckin' retards out there. If you stop tryin' to kill us we'll stop tryin' to kill you.'

"… [A young machine-gunner from south Texas, Lance Corporal Gregory] Farias is loyal to the US military presence in Iraq. He believes in the mission. He worships Bush and despises the conservative hate trinity of John Kerry, Bill Clinton and France. That doesn't mean he's confident about the way it's going in Karmah. 'It's really frustrating 'cause I mean we can't find these guys. They shoot at us all the time, they run away, we try to figure out who it is, we interrogate people - do they know who it was? No, nobody knows who it was, yeah? Ali Baba, the bad guy, nobody wants to tell us where they're at, you know, so we're basically on our own, trying to figure this out, trying to put this puzzle together, where they're at and you know it's frustrating 'cause we can't operate like we should be, cause we're more worried about getting blown up and trying to find these bombs at the side of the road instead of going on a patrol and trying to find these guys…' Just before we part, Farias grew a little more thoughtful and melancholy. 'I don't want to get killed here,' he said. 'I don't want to die here. You know. This is the last place I'd probably ever want to die. You know, it's just - I want to go home…'"

Home to his own sovereign country, that is.

Whose Iraq is it?

We believed that Iraqi sovereignty was ours to give or to keep; and while we claimed to give but actually kept, it's ever clearer that, in significant ways, sovereignty wasn't ours to give at all. It wasn't, as Jonathan Schell has pointed out, even in our possession. This may be the greatest of all the Bush administration Iraq fantasies in what is surely a nightmarish war of fantasies.

Even had we given actual sovereignty to Iyad Allawi's government, it seems we might have largely been granting him control over only the city-state of Baghdad, and not even all of that. It's hard to tell just how fully accurate this may be. After all, we rely for our picture of Iraq largely on Western journalists who, for completely understandable reasons (themselves a gauge of how little control "our" Iraqi government has), cannot really cover events in that country adequately. As Robert Fisk, reporter for the British Independent, put it recently, "Here, then, is the central crisis of information in Iraq just now. With journalists confined to Baghdad -- several have not left their hotels for more than two weeks -- a bomb-free day in the capital becomes a bomb-free day in Iraq."

To make his point, Fisk recently took a perilous journey from Baghdad to Najaf, and his report is quite startling to read. He found the region he traveled through almost totally lacking a "government" presence and, in the neighborhood of Najaf, American troops patrolling a limited number of roads designated by followers of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fisk's piece begins:

"For mile after mile south of Baghdad yesterday, the story was the same: empty police posts, abandoned Iraqi army and police checkpoints and a litter of burnt-out American fuel tankers and rocket-smashed police vehicles down the main highway to Hillah and Najaf. It was Afghanistan MK2…US forces are under so many daily guerrilla attacks that they cannot move by daylight along Highway 8 or, indeed, west of Baghdad through Falujah or Ramadi. Across Iraq, their helicopters can fly no higher than 100 metres for fear of rocket attack. Save for a solitary A1M1 Abrams tank on a motorway bridge in the Baghdad suburbs, I saw only one other US vehicle on the road yesterday: a solitary Humvee driving along a patrol road in Najaf agreed by the Mehdi Army… That the "muqawama" -- the resistance -- controls so many hundreds of square miles around Baghdad should be no great surprise. The new US-appointed government has neither the police nor the soldiers to retake the land."

Fisk concludes that Iraq is "a nation whose government rules only its capital, a country about which we fantasize at our peril."

Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder, from the Sunni city of Ramadi, reports a similar phenomenon: "[For American troops] to carry food from one base to the next in Ramadi, a matter of a few blocks, takes four vehicles - armored Humvees and trucks - all with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on top."

In another piece, Lasseter describes the way American forces are for the present settling up with the "sovereignty" they turn out not to possess.

"After more than a year of fighting, U.S. troops have stopped patrolling large swaths of Iraq's restive Anbar province, according to the top American military intelligence officer in the area…. In the wreckage of the security situation, [Army Maj. Thomas] Neemeyer [the head American intelligence officer for the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, the main military force in the Ramadi area] said, U.S. officials have all but given up on plans to install a democratic government in the city [Ramadi], and are hoping instead that Islamic extremists and other insurgent groups don't overrun the province in the same way that they've seized the region's most infamous town, Fallujah…

"'The only way to stomp out the insurgency of the mind,' [Capt. Joe Jasper, a spokesman for the 1st Brigade] said, 'would be to kill the entire population'… Pointing to a neighborhood outside the town of Habbaniyah, between Fallujah and Ramadi, he said, 'We've lost a lot of Marines there and we don't ever go in anymore. If they want it that bad, they can have it.' And then to a spot on the western edge of Fallujah: 'We find that if we don't go there, they won't shoot us.'"

In the meantime, the insurgency itself is growing increasingly sophisticated. Bender of the Globe reports, "They have recently shown a greater ability to cut off US military supply routes and to force Americans to adjust their own tactics, officials said… Attacks by mortar have increased in recent months, leading to fears that heavily armed insurgents could soon be using rockets and surface-to-air missiles."

So think of Sunni Iraq -- and possibly parts of Shia Iraq as well -- as a "nation" of city-state fiefdoms, each threatening to blink off our map of "sovereignty," despite our 140,ooo troops and our huge bases in the country. Robert Dreyfuss quotes Lt. Col. James Stackmo, an American intelligence officer, headquartered in Tikrit, as saying anxiously, "It's the lily pad theory. Fallujah exports itself to Samarra, which exports itself to the next place. In Samarra, there's probably 100 to 300 fighters who are holding the town hostage. We're not going to allow a militia in Samarra. We're not going to do it."

There's a certain dark humor buried in this quote, since not so long ago Pentagon neocons like Paul Wolfowitz were promoting a new global-basing policy for the imperium organizaed around a "lily-pad expeditionary basing strategy." Numerous "spartan," minimalist bases were to be strewn across the "arc of instability" (i.e. the oil-lands of our planet), so that American forces like so many frogs might be able to hop swiftly from hot spot to hot spot in search, assumedly, of the enemy equivalent of flies. Now, thanks to Wolfowitz and pals, the Iraqi insurgents have their own "lily-pad strategy" and, assumedly, we rank among the flies.

Dreyfuss adds:

"In fact, cities all over Iraq are totally outside the control of either the U.S. forces or the government of Iraqistan. Not only Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra, but other population centers in central Iraq are virtually self-contained city-states. The Kurds run their little enclave all by themselves. Parts of Baghdad are no-go zones for Americans. And in the south, fascist Shiite militia and armed gangs controlled by Iranian-backed mullahs and the likes of Ayatollah Sistani run things without any help from Baghdad."

The new "lily-pad" Iraq has not only been shielded from the sight of most Western reporters (a notable exception being Nir Rosen whose 7-part series on "the Fallujah Model" in Asia Times online is a must-read), but has proved to be largely beyond the prying eyes of our intelligence agencies as well. As New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh commented in an address to the ACLU:

"A year… ago, there was total panic inside [our government], because the opposition, the insurgency, was operating in 1, 2, and 3 man cells and we knew nothing about them. I can tell you right now, they're operating in 10 and 15 man cells right now and we still know nothing about them. The interrogations haven't worked, no matter how much pressure they put on people. We have no tactical information of any use whatsoever… We don't have much intelligence, and we're escalating a war. Bombing, missile attacks, much more violence."

If all this offers a glimpse into an Iraq where sovereignty is bouncing in many directions, none previously predicted by the Bush administration, there's another factor in the ongoing guerrilla war that, while obvious, is hardly ever mentioned. Though a subject for a future Tomdispatch, it's worth recalling that, back in the spring of 2003, as American troops approached Baghdad, there was a sudden flood of fearful analysis, punditry, and reportage in our media on the possibility of our invasion turning into an "Iraqi Stalingrad" in the streets of the capital, of American forces bogging down in "urban warfare" there; for it was suggested again and again that urban environments with their many hiding places and difficult sightlines, with their large civilian populations and mazes of streets tend to act as equalizers and might neutralize many of the advantages the American military relies on. Such fears came not just, or even primarily, from critics of the war, but from within the U.S. military itself, where officers were uncomfortable with the possibility of being trapped in such an end game. In the wake of the speedy April victory and the almost complete lack of resistance in Baghdad itself, such fears were simply laughed off the table by the Bush administration and then forgotten.

And yet, over a year later, our troops are certainly engaged in "urban warfare" and in a modest way many of the fears of the critics and military men are looking all too realistic. Here's what seems reasonably clear as of now: While Iraqi insurgents can sometimes mortar American troops on their bases, they haven't so far been able to get at them effectively there. The insurgents are relegated to roadside bombs and ambushes as the Americans pass to and fro on the highways of Iraq or as they patrol complex cityscapes, and so to a continual modest drip-drip-drip of casualties.

On the other hand, they have turned to a seemingly somewhat coordinated strategy of cutting the Americans and their Iraqis off from the rest of the country, of penning them up in Baghdad's Green Zone (hence persistent car-bomb attacks on the Zone's checkpoints) and on their bases. As long as American troops cede large areas of Iraq to the insurgents, to chaos, or to local rule by Iraqis largely opposed to our government in Baghdad, as long as they limit their patrols or pull back to their bases, American casualties are likely to be kept under some control -- but at a cost: the loss of whatever dreams remain for an American-controlled "sovereign" Iraq.

The insurgents have clearly turned with a literal vengeance to a program of severing any international or Iraqi support for an American-style reconstruction effort. This has involved a campaign of sabotage against oil pipelines and facilities, widespread kidnapping and intimidation, coordinated attacks on the American-trained police, civil defense units, and new Iraqi army. Along with this has gone a campaign of assassination aimed at anybody -- especially competent Iraqi administrators -- who has any truck with the Americans. Provincial officials and administrators have, for instance, been attacked throughout the country with, as Juan Cole points out, potentially devastating effect. Much of this, other than the dramatic kidnappings of foreigners, we hear little or nothing about.

This, then, seems to be "sovereign Iraq" as it exists at the end of July 2004.

An All-American Sovereign Power

The American Prospect's "Purple People Watch," which tracks the presidential election on a state-by-state level, reported that, on a recent presidential trip through Pennsylvania (where Bush is, by the latest polls, trailing Kerry),"while the White House press pool was dozing," Jack Brubaker of the Lancaster New Era got a modest scoop from on high. Our President had requested a meeting with an Amish woman who knitted him a quilt, and the result was an impromptu Amish get-together:

"Bush had never met an Amish person before, and he was clearly smitten with the group. He chatted with the women, and he tried on one of the men's straw hats. When he asked for their vote in November, one man told him that while not all members of the Amish church vote, the group would pray for him. According to one witness, the president teared up. Bush closed the session by reportedly testifying to having a very close relationship to God. 'I trust God speaks through me,' he said. 'Without that, I couldn't do my job.'"

This touching anecdote joins a growing shelf of similar tales in which our President claims to have consulted, or even channeled, a far greater Sovereign Power than the American people. For instance, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, in an interview with the President for his most recent book Plan of Attack, questioned him on whether he ever asked his father for advice: "And President Bush said, 'Well, no,' and then he got defensive about it…'Then he said something that really struck me. He said of his father, 'He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength.' And then he said, 'There's a higher Father that I appeal to.'"

The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported last year that the President said to then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, "God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did."

In fact, it seems that the Sovereign Power he believes nominated him for his present job was not "we, the people" or even "we, the Republican Party," but Someone Higher. According to Paul Harris of the British Observer, "Bush said to James Robinson: 'I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen... I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.'"

In this administration, the President is not alone. Lt. General William Boykin, Pentagon under secretary of defense for intelligence and war-fighting support, created a small firestorm of criticism by stumping the Christian evangelical circuit claiming that Bush's non-election was proof of divine intervention. "The majority of Americans did not vote for him…Why is he there? … Because God put him there for a time such as this."

We have much evidence, in other words, that the man in the White House believes sovereignty has a lot less to do with the American people, no less Iraqis, than with that Voice from Above. Let's also remember that his administration now has an almost unparalleled track record when it comes to getting (and taking) bad advice. In fact, almost every piece of earthly advice it bothered to garner on the nature of the world it was about to pummel was off-base or downright wrong; and its major acts, ranging from the setting up of an offshore mini-gulag of "information extraction" to invading Iraq, to ravaging the environment for immediate gain, seem intent on sowing chaos. Far be it from me as a nonbeliever to mention this, but given the record, I wonder whether our President should be quite so certain about Who he's been speaking with, about exactly Whose advice he's been following. Could our President actually be getting that advice from the wrong side of the Celestial Aisle?

Let's just consider his latest presidential positions:

"In a photo op with the Romanian prime minister yesterday, Bush said: 'Had we had any inkling, whatsoever, that terrorists were about to attack our country, we would have moved heaven and Earth to protect America. And I'm confident President Clinton would have done the same thing. Any president would have.'"

Imagine, a Bush defense of Clinton! Or consider that our war president, whose speeches not so long ago rang with a frightening and repetitive litany of terror, danger, destruction, and war, in a political pit-stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spoke the "P" word ("peaceful") "a dozen times," according to AP reporter Deb Riechmann. Then the man who had launched two wars, who visibly gloried in his martial landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln at what looked like the end of the second of those wars, who later growled, "Bring 'em on," added: "The enemy declared war on us. Nobody wants to be the war president. I want to be the peace president."

Assumedly these new tacks are also based on suggestions from a Higher Advisory Council. Whether that Voice from Above is actually Karl Rove's, Dick Cheney's, or Someone Else's, it's now threatening to turn George Bush into a flip-flop president. If I were him, I might consider hanging up the phone.