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Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK and the human rights/fair trade group Global Exchange.

August 16th, 2011 2:51 PM

Iraq Withdrawal? Don't Take It to the Bank

Written by Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis

Since coming to Washington, Barack Obama has won a Nobel Prize for Peace, but he hasn’t been much of a peacemaker. Instead, he has doubled down on his predecessor’s wars while launching blatantly illegal ones of his own. But, as his supporters would be quick to point out, at least he’s standing by his pledge to bring the troops home from Iraq.

Right?

That’s certainly what America’s latest war president has been saying. Speaking to supporters this month, he was unequivocal. “If somebody asks about the war [in Iraq] . . . you have a pretty simple answer, which is all our folks are going to be out of there by the end of the year.”

Obama’s statement was a welcome reaffirmation of what he promised on the campaign trail. “If we have not gotten our troops out by the time I am President, it is the first thing I will do,” he thundered in the fall of 2007.  “I will get our troops home. We will bring an end to this war. You can take that to the bank.”

But don’t count on cashing that check. The Washington Post brings the unsurprising news that Iraqi leaders have agreed to begin talks with the U.S. on allowing the foreign military occupation of their country to continue beyond this year – re-branded, naturally, as a mission of “training” and “support.” The move comes after an increasingly public campaign by top White House and military officials to pressure Iraqi leaders into tearing up the Status of Forces Agreement they signed with the Bush administration, which mandates the removal of all foreign troops by the end of 2011.

As with any relationship, saying goodbye is always the hardest part for an empire. The U.S. political establishment has long desired a foothold in the Middle East from which it could exert influence over the trade of the region’s natural resources. Remember, Iraq has lots of oil, as those who launched the invasion of the country in 2003 were all too aware. They aren’t too keen on giving that up.

And as is to be expected when one maintains the most powerful – and expensive – military in world history, there are strong institutional pressures within the Pentagon for maintaining the status quo. Peace may be good for children and other living things, but it’s boring for generals – especially politically ambitious ones – and bad for bomb manufacturers.

The longer U.S. troops stay in Iraq and ensure that country’s fidelity to U.S. policy, the more weapons the Iraqi government will buy from American companies. Indeed, Prime Minister Maliki just announced that Iraq would buy 38 F-16 fighters, taking billions of dollars away from food and shelter for poor Iraqis while boosting Lockheed Martin’s war chest. Add in the fact that Iraq is situated right next to Iran, the one oil-rich country in the region opposed to U.S. hegemony, and you’ve got a good recipe for indefinite occupation.

Of course, if Obama was as committed to withdrawing “all troops from Iraq” as he claims, all he would need to do is stick by the Bush-era agreement for troops to leave by December 31. Doing so would not only provide him cover from claims he is surrendering to the terrorists – hey, a Republican negotiated the deal – but it would fulfill a key campaign pledge and help soothe liberal anger over his escalation of Afghanistan and his illegal war in Libya.

Obama has no plans for a full withdrawal, though, as his hand-picked appointees make clear. You can almost hear him thinking: What are liberals going to do, vote Republican?

Echoing the top military brass, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates first noted earlier this year supposed Iraqi “interest in having a continuing presence” in Iraq. His successor, Leon Panetta, then told senators during his June confirmation hearing that he had “every confidence” the Iraqi government would ask for such a U.S. presence beyond 2011.

Like clockwork, Iraqi leaders are set to ask for just that, with The Washington Post reporting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies have decided any request to extend the U.S. occupation will “not require signing a new accord.” That means no messy parliamentary battles or referendums, where the popular anti-American sentiment would surface.

Ah, democracy.

The Obama administration is prepared to keep about 10,000 troops in Iraq, and their “non-combat” tasks could include training, air defense, intelligence, reconnaissance and joint counter-terrorism missions. These are the same sort of operations that have left at least 56 U.S. soldiers dead since Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations last August.

One thing is certain: U.S. officials who once claimed to be bringing democracy to Iraq couldn’t be more thrilled at the subversion of it. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, alluded to that in a comment remarking on the Iraqis’ recent decision to open talks with the U.S. on an extended, rebranded occupation. “There are some very difficult political challenges, internal challenges associated with reaching this decision,” he noted, said “challenges” being the fact that the people the occupation is ostensibly being extended to protect don’t actually want the “protection” the U.S. government is offering.

Mullen added that a final agreement must include “guarantees of legal immunity for American forces.” Obviously, we wouldn’t want any ungrateful Iraqis to prosecute U.S. soldiers if they kill civilians while engaging in “non-combat” duties.

Here at home, opinion polls have for years shown that two-thirds of Americans oppose the war in Iraq. Opposition to a continued presence has also been building in Congress, always the most lagging indicator. On July 22, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and 94 other representatives sent a letter to President Obama urging him to bring all U.S. troops and military contractors home by the end of this year and she is introducing a bill that would cut off funding.

As for the Iraqi opinion, anti-U.S. cleric and politician Moqtada al-Sadr put out a statement on August 3 saying that any foreign solider remaining in his country after 2011 would “be treated as an unjust invader and should be opposed with military resistance.” We’ll mark him down as a “no thanks.” According to Al-Iraqiya TV, meanwhile, 2.5 million of al-Sadr’s compatriots have signed a petition calling for U.S. troops to get out.

“We want them to leave, even before the end of this year,” Youseff Ahmad, a tribal sheik from the Iraqi town of Al Rufait, recently told one reporter. “They’ve destroyed us. They’ve only brought killing and disaster.” Ahmad spoke after having just witnessed U.S. troops’ “training” and “support” mission in action, the consequence of which was “a shootout involving bullets, grenades and American Apache helicopters that left the tribal Sheik and two others dead, and several wounded, including two young girls.”

Even top members of the Iraqi government are saying no thanks, even if their more powerful colleagues are toeing the U.S. line. On Sunday, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said that a continued American military presence in Iraq would be “a problem, not a solution,” adding that training could be done by other countries at a cheaper price.

American officials acknowledge that al-Hashemi is speaking for the bulk of his fellow countrymen, with U.S. diplomats telling The New York Times that their own polling shows a “majority of Iraqis have a negative view of the American role in Iraq.”

No wonder Nouri al-Maliki and his thuggish cronies, fearful their power to torture and suppress political opponents will evaporate without U.S. support, aren’t willing to let average Iraqis have a say in their country’s future. The question is: will Americans, who support a complete withdrawal and want to bring the war dollars home, ever get a say in the future of their country? Tell President Obama to stick to his promises and bring the troops home.

Medea Benjamin (medea@globalexchange.org) is cofounder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange.

Charles Davis (davis.charles84@gmail.com) is an independent journalist who has covered Congress for public radio and the international news wire Inter Press Service.

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