Iraq: an interview with Dr. Stephen Zunes

Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. He has written extensively on a range of foreign policy issues, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, non-violent struggle and nuclear proliferation. He is the author of 2003’s acclaimed Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, is a regular contributor to Tikkun magazine and the Common Dreams website, among other places. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus think-tank and as an associate editor of Peace Review. His articles can be viewed here, and information about his books is available here.

I asked Dr. Zunes a few questions about the current ‘Iran crisis’, the situation in Iraq and the Israel/Palestine conflict. The second part of the interview, dealing with Iraq, is published below. The third and final part will be published shortly.

1. What are U.S. interests in Iraq today? Have American objectives in the region changed since the invasion, and does the Bush administration still think that it can achieve them?

Clearly the original U.S. goal of establishing a pro-American secular free market-oriented democratic government is now considered unreachable. Now Washington is just hoping that the Sunni insurgents can be contained, the Shiites in power will loosen their close ties to Iran, the Kurds won’t do anything too provocative to the Turks (like declaring full independence), U.S. companies can effectively control a good percentage of the county’s oil, and the United States can establish a network of large permanent bases to better facilitate U.S. military domination of the Middle East.

President Bush recently declared that the eventual goal for U.S. troops is “overwatching” — a term I could not locate in any dictionary — Iraqi forces. This suggests that allowing Iraqi forces to act independently is not even considered a long-range prospect anymore and that the Bush administration intends for American armed forces to ultimately be in charge of security in Iraq indefinitely.

2. Should we expect a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq any time soon?

Unless and until Congress is willing to eliminate funds for U.S. operations except what is needed to safely withdraw them from Iraq, a full withdrawal is out of the question. Hillary Clinton and most of the other contenders for the Democratic Party nomination for president (with the exceptions of Elliot Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel) intend, if elected, to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the country even after the withdrawal of most combat forces. Senator Clinton’s plan, for example, would mean a reduced combat role for American forces, but would still maintain at least 60,000 U.S. troops remaining in that country.

Bush’s plan, meanwhile, means very little in terms of overall reduction in troop strength. There will be virtually no reduction of troops by December nor will there be a reduction of forces beyond the numbers prior to the pre-surge levels by next July. The Pentagon currently has plans to add an additional 4,000 Army troops in the next couple of weeks, more than making up for the 2,200 Marines ending their tour of duty in Anbar and nearly making up for the 4,500 additional forces he plans to pull out by Christmas. Furthermore, the larger reduction of five combat brigades expected by next July will place the total number of combat troops at levels no less than they were prior to the start of the surge, when the Baker Commission — representing the consensus of the foreign policy establishment — called for the complete withdrawal of regular combat forces by that same month.

U.S. military commanders have made it clear that American forces simply cannot sustain the current level of combat troops in Iraq and there would need to be a withdrawal to pre-surge levels regardless of the situation on the ground. The drawdown recommended by General Petreaus and announced by President Bush had already been planned months ago as there will be insufficient fresh forces available to sustain the escalation. So, the limited withdrawals announced by Bush in his speech in September should not be mistaken for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

3. The “surge” has led to a sharp increase in the number of internally displaced refugees and has failed to cut attacks on civilians. How can it be that some people are touting it as a success?

Basically, General Petraeus and the Bush administration manipulated the numbers. Figures released by the Bush administration purporting to cite a decline in sectarian killings appear to be based on some rather arbitrary calculations, including a determination that being shot in the back of the head is a sectarian attack whereas being shot in the front of the head is a criminal act, even in cases where eyewitnesses indicated the frontal killing was indeed sectarian in motivation. All car bombings, even those apparently sectarian in motivation, are also excluded from Bush administration calculations.

If indeed there actually has been a slight decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad over the past six months, it could be attributed to the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and Shiites who have fled mixed neighborhoods — at a rate of over 50,000 per month — into segregated enclaves, many with concrete walls erected around them to keep out militants from the other side. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office on the situation in Baghdad noted how “The average number of daily attacks against civilians remained about the same over the last six months; 25 in February versus 26 in July.” The Iraqi Interior ministry also confirmed that there has been no drop in civilian deaths.

Claims by President Bush of an improvement in a decline in violence outside Baghdad also have little relation to reality. This may be in part because the administration’s figures purporting to show a decline in sectarian violence exclude such tragic mass killings as the slaughter of 322 Yazidi Kurds in northern Iraq in August or the growing violence in Basra, Karbala and elsewhere in southern Iraq between rival Shiite factions. Estimates based on records from Iraqi morgues, hospitals and police headquarters around the country reveal that the numbers of civilians killed daily is almost twice as high as last year’s level. Six out of ten Iraqis in a recent poll indicate that their security situation has worsened since the surge began and only one out of ten say that it has improved. Seven out of ten believe that the surge has “hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development.”

4. Do you think it’s important for the anti-war movement to come out and be pro-active about recognising the right of the Iraqi people to resist the U.S.-led occupation? It seems that at the moment, Bush’s narrative about the resistance being composed entirely of al-Qaeda has become the dominant one, to the extent that when an “insurgent” is killed it is generally seen as acceptable, or even good.

There are dozens of different insurgent groups, including neo-Baathists, Sunni Islamists, independent nationalists, tribal-based groups, radical Shiite militias and others. Al-Qaida is constitutes only a tiny minority of the insurgency. The U.S. military estimates that foreign fighters represent barely 5% of the insurgency. The overwhelming majority of those fighting U.S. forces have no desire to build a radical Islamic empire or attack the United States itself. They want to rid their country of foreign occupation forces and oust a government they see as repressive, corrupt, and too closely aligned with their Persian and American enemies.

While attacks against foreign occupation forces cannot be legally considered terrorism and are arguably legal, most identify with various Baathist and Islamist ideologies that few American opponents of the war can identify with. I think the anti-war movement should primarily point out how the longer the U.S. has been fighting, the more the insurgency has grown and that the majority of insurgents unaffiliated with al-Qaida would likely put down their arms and join a broad coalition government in return for amnesty and a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, options the Bush administration has rejected.

A sizable majority of Iraqis – both Sunni and Shia – believe it is legitimate to attack American forces. Even those making up the Anbar Salvation Council – the coalition of local sheiks and Sunni militias which came together to fight al-Qaeda forces which Bush has touted as evidence his “surge” strategy was working (even though it formed last September, four months before the “surge” in U.S. forces into the province began) – had been fighting alongside al-Qaeda against U.S. and Iraqi government troops previously. They have temporarily allied with the United States because al-Qaeda’s extremist Islamist ideology and its massacres of civilians so alienated the populace. The hostility of those in the Anbar Salvation Council to the Iraqi government (which they see as dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalists) as well as to the United States (which they see as a foreign occupier) raises the likelihood that once the al-Qaeda forces are marginalized, they will turn their guns once again on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Unlike the extremists, those in the Anbar Salvation Council have widespread popular support and — thanks to American arms and training provided in recent months — could end up being a bigger threat to the Iraqi government and U.S. forces than al-Qaeda, a possibility acknowledged in a recent National Intelligence Estimate. And they are unlikely to be placated, as Prime Minister Malaki has explicitly ruled out working with some of the Sunni groups temporarily allied with U.S. forces in Anbar.

5. Why have the Democrats, despite winning last year’s mid-terms on a tide of popular anti-war sentiment, failed to force an end to the occupation by cutting off funds, or making them conditional upon a withdrawal?

First of all, it’s important to remember that five years ago, when Congress gave President Bush the unprecedented war powers to invade Iraq at the time an circumstances of his own choosing, Democrats controlled the Senate, the Democratic leadership of both houses endorsed the resolution, and the majority of Democratic senators supported it. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats have supported unconditional funding of the war ever since. With only a few conscientious exceptions, most Democrats who now oppose the war are doing so only because of constituent pressure.

By voting on non-binding resolutions for a timetable for withdrawal, they can tell their constituents they oppose the war, while simultaneously voting to give unconditionally funding to Bush to continue fighting the war. The Democrats do not need a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto in order to stop the war. All they need to do is to refuse to pass any funding bill that does not condition war funding on a strict timetable for withdrawal, something that is well within the prerogative of the majority party.

As a result, one can only conclude that most Democrats in Congress actually support President Bush’s policies and are only pretending otherwise so as to assuage the anger of their constituents.

They also assume that anti-war voters will vote for Democrats anyway and will not support Green or independent anti-war candidates, so they believe that they have little to lose by continuing to support funding for the war.

You can read part one, a discussion of the so-called “Iran crisis”, here.

Cross-posted at The Heathlander


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  1. … this:

    As a result, one can only conclude that most Democrats in Congress actually support President Bush’s policies and are only pretending otherwise so as to assuage the anger of their constituents.

    … is a very silly response, imo.  Dems may support staying in Iraq for a lot of reasons, none of which I would agree with, but I find it highly unlikely they “support” Bush’s policies.  Hell, most of the Republicans don’t even support Bush’s policies, but they’re still in line when it comes to voting, because they don’t know how to back out of that position.

    I find that “conclusion” to be less than thoughtful.

  2. ‘At a campaign stop in rural Iowa Saturday Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, said he was stunned by the fact that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, and former Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, would not commit to having all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by 2013.

    In an interview with CNN Dodd said, “The idea that the so-called leading candidates for the Democratic nomination would not say categorically that six or seven years from today-four years after [assuming] the presidency-we would not be out of Iraq I found rather stunning.”

    Dodd was referring to comments the three made at Wednesday’s Democratic debate broadcast on MSNBC. Dodd said when he heard their responses on that stage he could “hardly breathe” because he was “so angry.”

    When asked if he were to become president and combat troops were still in Iraq, how long it would be until they were out Dodd said, “I want to effectuate that now. I don’t want to wait until 2009.”

    He continued, “But if I’m unable to achieve that-which we ought to be able to do-then I would begin that redeployment process immediately. I’d depend upon my military planners on the timing of it, but they tell me they can move a brigade and a half out each month. So my goal would be, depending upon the level of troops there at that time, to begin that redeployment immediately.”‘


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