The US isn’t leaving Iraq, it’s rebranding the occupation

Seumas Milne

Obama says withdrawal is on schedule, but renaming or outsourcing combat troops won’t give Iraqis back their country

August 4, 2010

For most people in
Britain and the US, Iraq is already history. Afghanistan has long since
taken the lion’s share of media attention, as the death toll of Nato
troops rises inexorably. Controversy about Iraq is now almost entirely
focused on the original decision to invade: what’s happening there in
2010 barely registers.

That will have been reinforced by Barack Obama’s declaration this week that US combat troops are to be withdrawn from Iraq
at the end of the month "as promised and on schedule". For much of the
British and American press, this was the real thing: headlines hailed
the "end" of the war and reported "US troops to leave Iraq".

could be further from the truth. The US isn’t withdrawing from Iraq at
all – it’s rebranding the occupation. Just as George Bush’s war on
terror was retitled "overseas contingency operations" when Obama became
president, US "combat operations" will be rebadged from next month as
"stability operations".

But as Major General Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman in Iraq, told the New York Times: "In practical terms, nothing will change".
After this month’s withdrawal, there will still be 50,000 US troops in
94 military bases, "advising" and training the Iraqi army, "providing
security" and carrying out "counter-terrorism" missions. In US military
speak, that covers pretty well everything they might want to do.

50,000 is a major reduction on the numbers in Iraq a year ago. But what
Obama once called "the dumb war" goes remorselessly on. In fact,
violence has been increasing as the Iraqi political factions remain
deadlocked for the fifth month in a row in the Green Zone. More
civilians are being killed in Iraq than Afghanistan: 535 last month
alone, according to the Iraqi government – the worst figure for two

And even though
US troops are rarely seen on the streets, they are still dying at a
rate of six a month, their bases regularly shelled by resistance
groups, while Iraqi troops and US-backed militias are being killed in
far greater numbers and al-Qaida – Bush’s gift to Iraq – is back in
business across swaths of the country. Although hardly noticed in
Britain, there are still 150 British troops in Iraq supporting US

Meanwhile, the
US government isn’t just rebranding the occupation, it’s also
privatising it. There are around 100,000 private contractors working
for the occupying forces, of whom more than 11,000 are armed
mercenaries, mostly "third country nationals", typically from the
developing world. One Peruvian and two Ugandan security contractors
were killed in a rocket attack on the Green Zone only a fortnight ago.

US now wants to expand their numbers sharply in what Jeremy Scahill,
who helped expose the role of the notorious US security firm
Blackwater, calls the "coming surge" of contractors in Iraq. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000, to be based in five "enduring presence posts" across Iraq.

advantage of an outsourced occupation is clearly that someone other
than US soldiers can do the dying to maintain control of Iraq. It also
helps get round the commitment, made just before Bush left office, to
pull all American troops out by the end of 2011. The other getout,
widely expected on all sides, is a new Iraqi request for US troops to
stay on – just as soon as a suitable government can be stitched
together to make it.

is abundantly clear is that the US, whose embassy in Baghdad is now the
size of Vatican City, has no intention of letting go of Iraq any time
soon. One reason for that can be found in the dozen 20-year contracts
to run Iraq’s biggest oil fields that were handed out last year to
foreign companies, including three of the Anglo-American oil majors
that exploited Iraqi oil under British control before 1958.

dubious legality of these deals has held back some US companies, but as
Greg Muttitt, author of a forthcoming book on the subject, argues, the
prize for the US is bigger than the contracts themselves, which put 60%
of Iraq’s reserves under long-term foreign corporate control. If output
can be boosted as sharply as planned, the global oil price could be
slashed and the grip of recalcitrant Opec states broken.

horrific cost of the war to the Iraqi people, on the other hand, and
the continuing fear and misery of daily life make a mockery of claims
that the US surge of 2007 "worked" and that Iraq has come good after

It’s not only the
hundreds of thousands of dead and 4 million refugees. After seven years
of US (and British) occupation, tens of thousands are still tortured
and imprisoned without trial, health and education has dramatically
deteriorated, the position of women has gone horrifically backwards,
trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is divided by 1,500
checkpoints and blast walls, electricity supplies have all but broken
down and people pay with their lives for speaking out.

without the farce of the March elections, the banning and killing of
candidates and activists and subsequent political breakdown, to claim –
as the Times did today – that "Iraq is a democracy" is grotesque. The
Green Zone administration would collapse in short order without the
protection of US troops and security contractors. No wonder the
speculation among Iraqis and some US officials is of an eventual
military takeover.

Iraq war has been a historic political and strategic failure for the
US. It was unable to impose a military solution, let alone turn the
country into a beacon of western values or regional policeman. But by
playing the sectarian and ethnic cards, it also prevented the emergence
of a national resistance movement and a humiliating Vietnam-style
pullout. The signs are it wants to create a new form of outsourced
semi-colonial regime to maintain its grip on the country and region.
The struggle to regain Iraq’s independence has only just begun.


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