US Occupation of Iraq Remains Despite New Interim Government

  • Iraq remains an occupied country. Whether the new “interim government” stands or falls, whether or not the United Nations passes a new resolution, whether or not the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s hints constitute real approval of the “government,” the occupation remains. Neither the existence of the interim government nor the likely new Security Council resolution change the reality of 138,000 U.S. occupying the country and U.S. economic and political forces maintaining control of Iraq’s economic and political life.
  • The new interim government reflects U.S. control of Iraq. It was created through negotiations (somewhat more vigorous than anticipated) between the U.S. occupation forces and the creature of those occupation forces, the Iraq Governing Council that was itself selected and put in power by the U.S. So whatever the tactical disagreements between U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer and the Governing Council over the assignment of specific individuals to specific positions, the final choice reflects the needs of the U.S. occupation.
  • The individual and collective identities of the interim government members are less significant than the illegitimacy of the process in determining the credibility of the government. But positioning Iyad Allawi as prime minister represents a particularly non-credible choice. Known throughout Iraq for his longstanding role as a British MI6 and U.S. CIA asset as well as earlier links to the intelligence services of the Baathist regime in Iraq, Allawi is widely viewed as responsible for the false “45-minutes-to-launch” claim regarding Iraq’s purported WMD in the run-up to the war.
  • The process of choosing the ministers was not democratic and does not reflect the breadth of Iraqi public opinion. United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, after the interim government put itself into office, stated that there should be negotiations with the armed opposition, which he said includes “people who are not terrorists, who are respectable, genuine Iraqi patriots.”
  • The U.S. had agreed to the UN and specifically Brahimi playing the central role in choosing an interim government, deliberately not to reflect the widely discredited Governing Council. But in the last weeks before the May 31st deadline for identifying government ministers Brahimi was forced to the sidelines. As a result, the interim government, like the Governing Council before it, is a creature of the United States, not the United Nations. Brahimi himself acknowledged that “Mr. Bremer is the dictator of Iraq. He has the money. He has the signature. Nothing happens without his agreement in this country.” When asked whether the U.S. was prepared to give real independence to Iraq, Brahimi said, “I must be careful here what I say. …I would like to know in which part of the world the United States does not have at least some influence? How they use that influence is sometimes welcome, sometimes a source of resentment.”
  • Brahimi’s statement came too late to protect the credibility and legitimacy of the United Nations. The decision of Brahimi and Secretary General Kofi Annan to acquiesce quietly to the U.S. pressure has severely undermined the global organization. Faced with insurmountable U.S. pressure, Brahimi could have acknowledged his resulting inability to implement the UN’s decision (to appoint non-political technocrats to run the country and prepare for elections in 2005), and withdrawn from his post. The result would almost certainly have been a U.S. “transfer of power” to the Governing Council itself, a move which would have been widely recognized as undemocratic, illegal, and illegitimate. Instead, there are Governing Council members and their chosen minions in all the top positions of the interim government, but a United Nations imprimatur and “bluewashing” of the process provides the illusion of international credibility. Whatever decisions the Security Council finally takes regarding the interim government, UN credibility and legitimacy have been shredded, and will be difficult to reclaim after such submission to U.S. power.
  • The Bush administration’s decision to return to the UN and beg for assistance reflects the strategic failures facing the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the broader drive towards empire of which it is a part. The U.S. military is stretched very thin. Recent decisions to replace top U.S. military officer in Iraq General Ricardo Sanchez and forcibly extend active duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond the end of contracts signed by the “volunteer” Army, growing reliance on insufficiently trained reservists, the lowered visibility of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, and the increasing discussion of resumption of the legal draft to bolster the now-insufficient poverty draft, all reflect challenges to U.S. military power. The torture scandal spreading rapidly from Abu Ghraib prison to the entire archipelago of U.S. detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere remains the emerging symbol of the U.S. war. And unrelenting casualties among U.S. troops continue to erode already dwindling public support for the war.
  • International military participation in the “coalition” in Iraq is diminishing quickly. After the withdrawal of Spanish troops following the defeat of Bush ally Jose Maria Aznar weeks ago, other countries are considering withdrawing their troops as well. Bush is meeting a series of top leaders from countries with troops in Iraq, urging them to stay to provide credibility; he told Australian prime minister that a withdrawal of coalition troops would be “disastrous.”
  • With the election dominating Bush administration planning, the neo-cons are no longer clearly ascendant. Divisions within the administration, particularly between the Pentagon-based ideologues and those mostly concerned with winning the election, are playing out publicly. Visible fissures include the recent about-face on White House support for the Pentagon’s favorite Ahmad Chalabi; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice refused to back down when confronted by former Pentagon official Richard Perle and other top neo-cons demanding an end to the anti-Chalabi moves. George Tenet’s fall-on-his-sword resignation from the CIA may be only the first of many more to fall victim to the bitter internal fighting within the administration.
  • The growing military problems reflect the strategic failure of the neo-cons within the administration to make good on their claims of a golden pacified Iraq as the centerpiece of a democratic, privatized, U.S.-embracing Middle East. With war in Iraq far from “mission accomplished” and Palestine still in flames, talk of invading Syria and threatening Iran has largely ended, as have the grandiose proposals behind the now stumbling Greater Middle East Initiative. The version that will be presented at the G-8 Summit in George next week reflects little of the stirring rhetoric and vision it once held.
  • The main indicator of the continuing internecine battle is the decision of the Bush administration to go to the United Nations at all, however false their commitment to international accountability may be. The global opposition to the war has not faded as the invasion moved inexorably into occupation. Only Bush’s desperate need for international legitimacy could force him to return to the Security Council chamber, hat in hand.
  • The new U.S.-UK draft resolution endorses the interim government and turns the U.S. and “coalition” forces into a UN-mandated “multinational force.” It is designed to provide international legitimacy for the continuation of the U.S. occupation and control of Iraq. The changes Washington and London have offered the Security Council in the revised draft are aimed at pacifying European opposition, not providing real sovereignty for Iraq.
  • It is unclear whether Washington’s largely cosmetic concessions on the security issues involving the so-called Multinational Force (MNF) will satisfy Security Council opponents. China has been unusually outspoken in opposing the early drafts of the U.S.-UK resolution, calling for much earlier expiration of the MNF mandate with the election in January 2005 of the transitional assembly. Russia wants the new Iraqi prime minister to meet with the Council as well as the foreign minister. France has asked for an automatic end to the mandate if the transitional government requests it. Germany has called for a specific expiration date to be included in the resolution, as well as clarification of the Transitional Government’s right to end the mandate.
  • The revised draft resolution still does not provide a specific expiration date for the mandate of the so-called “multinational force.” The reference to expiration “at the completion of the political process” still leaves final decisionmaking in U.S. hands as to defining when that political process (assumed but not guaranteed to be the January 2006 election of a permanent government) is actually over. While the draft would allow the Transitional Government (to be elected in January 2005) to request that the Council end the mandate of the force, the reality of the U.S. veto means that Washington could simply vote No to deny the request. And if, as is likely, there is any delay in the proposed timetable, the mandate remains in place; any effort to end it would require an affirmative Council vote, which the U.S. could veto.
  • The second disagreement is whether the Iraqi military or government has any control over operations by the U.S. occupation forces. France, China and Algeria want Iraq to be able to block major military missions. But Washington rejects that out of hand. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “You can’t use the word ‘veto.’ There could be a situation where we have to act and there may be a disagreement and we have to act to protect ourselves or to accomplish a mission.”
  • It is unlikely that any of the Council opponents will veto the resolution. But it is possible, if there is enough international opposition, that the resolution could fail to get sufficient positive votes to pass, and the U.S. would almost certainly withdraw the resolution rather than risk its rejection by the Council.. The resolution needs nine positive votes; if enough Council members abstain, it could fail to win sufficient votes, and the U.S. would almost certainly withdraw the resolution rather than risk its rejection by the Council. The likely yes votes include the U.S., UK, Romania, the Philippines. Depending on final language, the possible abstentions or no votes could come from France, Russia, China, Algeria, Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Chile. And Pakistan, Angola and Benin could go either way.
  • Without international pressure on governments around the world the resolution could well pass unanimously, institutionalizing the UN “bluewash” of the occupation. Public mobilization to build that pressure is all the more necessary because the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim foreign minister Hoshyar Zubari actually welcomed the revised draft as a “positive text” and rather than calling for an end to occupation, warned the Security Council of the dangers of a “premature” departure of the occupation forces. He said that “a fixed timetable for withdrawal would be very, very unhelpful.” He did not back the call for Iraqi control over U.S. military operations, saying only that Iraqi “views should be taken into consideration,” something quite consistent with the U.S. position that it will work “in consultation” with the Iraqi government.

With a few more Iraqi faces supporting it, the occupation remains.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.