Five years into the occupation of Iraq, Guardian-UK reporter Jonathan Steele argues that the project was doomed from the start. US and British planners of the war failed before they began by failing to understand Iraqi history, by ignoring the depths of Arab anger over Western aggression in the region, and by consistently denying Iraqis a voice in their own affairs. Blending first-hand reportage with historical overview and informed analysis, Steele argues, in the context of a war that won’t go away, that despite what you may be hearing about the surge, any increase in security has acted directly against Iraqis’ inalienable right to sovereignty. The solution? Admit defeat, then leave.

In April 2007 during the “surge” of extra US troops to Baghdad, a statement from the Multi-National Division’s public affairs office announced that a wall was being built round Adhamiya, a largely Sunni district in the north-west of the Iraqi capital, as well as two other Sunni areas in Baghdad. It was described as “one of the centerpieces of a new strategy.”

The collapse in security had made it almost impossible for journalists to move about in Baghdad, so news of the wall had gone unreported. Local people who spotted the first concrete blocks being erected had not understood the planned extent of it. When the army’s press statement appeared, however, it provoked a storm. Three days later reporters were sent another article from the Multi-National Division’s public affairs office. It carried the amazing headline, “Baghdad’s gated communities explained.” Was this some bizarre joke?

The press release quoted Baghdad’s deputy commanding general, Brig Gen John F. Campbell, as saying that several neighborhoods were to get special security barriers like the Green Zone:

    The intent is not to divide the city along sectarian lines. The intent is to provide a more secured neighborhood for people … We’ve selected communities that have seen an increase in violence, a heightened violence, and we’re protecting some of those communities with walls.

Furious crowds gathered in protest near the district’s main mosque, Abu Hanifa. Just as they had done in the first weeks of the occupation they marched through the streets of Adhamiya with banners saying “No Shias, No Sunnis, Islamic Unity.” Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was on a visit to Cairo, reacted in outrage. He said the building of the wall would stop. Other Iraqi politicians were equally angry. The Iraqi Islamic party as well as Moqtada al-Sadr’s organization both announced they were against dividing Baghdad by sect. “The Sadr movement considers building a wall around Adhamiya as a way to lay siege to the Iraqi people and separate them into cantons. It is like the Berlin Wall that divided Germany,” said a statement from the Sadr organization.

Local residents compared the wall to the barriers put up by the Israeli army on the West Bank.

Local residents compared the wall to the barriers put up by the Israeli army on the West Bank. Others complained of the use of residents’ fingerprints and other biometric information that US and Iraqi security forces took from people in order to determine who could or could not come in. They feared their neighborhood would become a giant prison on the pattern of Fallujah.

As the row continued, Major General William Caldwell, the top US military spokesman, denied there was any new strategy. The wall was just a temporary tactic, he promised. “Obviously we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister,” the new American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told a press conference.

Who would get the upper hand—the Iraqi prime minister or the Americans? It was a good test of sovereignty. Sameer al-Abeidi, the sheikh of the Abu Hanifa mosque, put the issue clearly. Welcoming Maliki’s call for construction of the wall to stop, he said, “We shake hands with the government in such stands and hope the occupation forces would not abort these stands.” However, on Maliki’s return to Baghdad they did exactly that. A day or two later officials in the prime minister’s office said Maliki’s opposition to the wall had been provoked by media reporting that he now felt was exaggerated. Construction would continue.

The biggest and most sensitive issue for any country is its independence.

The biggest and most sensitive issue for any country is its independence. In the Middle East, in particular, it is a marker of a country’s dignity and its people’s honor. The constitution is one of the key symbols of sovereignty. Yet the USA interfered in both of Iraq’s constitutions.

The process of drafting Iraq’s new constitution in the summer of 2005 was largely controlled by American officials, acting under the leadership of the highly interventionist ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The Reuters news agency reported him as being a “ubiquitous presence” during the discussions on the draft.

The embassy felt no embarrassment about proposing its own draft on the most contentious points. “The Americans say they don’t intervene, but they have intervened deep. They gave us a detailed proposal, almost a full version of a constitution,” as Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the constitution committee, put it.

Even Bush weighed into the process. To reinforce Khalilzad’s recommendations, he rang Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the SCIRI leader, to discuss the constitution. When Shia and Kurdish leaders announced they had agreed on a final text, Khalilzad was standing there beside them. The New York Times reported he had worked “furiously through the night to broker a deal.” He endorsed it as “right for Iraq at the present time.”

A Sunni negotiator grumbled: “This constitution was cooked up in an American kitchen, not an Iraqi one.”

Because of the constant US interference some members of Iraq’s constitutional committee felt they had been reduced to bystanders. One Shia member complained: “We haven’t played much of a role in drafting the constitution. We feel that we have been neglected. We have not been consulted on important issues.” A Sunni negotiator grumbled: “This constitution was cooked up in an American kitchen, not an Iraqi one.”

Imperial relationships are complex. Orders cannot be shouted. They have to be conveyed diplomatically so that the weaker party can give the appearance of consent while both sides preserve the fiction of sovereignty. At times, if it feels its pride or image are threatened, the weaker party may even disagree in public.

This was the case as tensions rose between Bush and Maliki in early 2007. Ever since Maliki took office after the Americans pushed Jaafari out, Khalilzad had been struggling to get the new prime minister to agree to a series of policies intended to reduce Sunni suspicions. Public opinion in the USA was growing increasingly impatient. US casualties were rising. The insurgency showed no sign of being defeated. Sectarian violence was taking a phenomenal toll of Iraqi lives.

The American public mood was well captured in December 2006 by a bipartisan commission under James Baker and Lee Hamilton that was set up by the US Congress. Asked to make recommendations for US policy, they laid out the terms of future American engagement with the Iraqi government in the bluntest terms: Obey us or we leave. They recommended that

    the United States should lay out an agenda for continued support to help Iraq achieve milestones, as well as underscoring the consequences if Iraq does not act. It should be unambiguous that continued US political, military,

    and economic support for Iraq depends on the Iraq government’s demonstrating political will and making substantial progress towards the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance.

Privately, senior US officials had given the same message before, but this was the first time it was put publicly by such an eminent group. Baker, Hamilton, and the rest of their team were not members of the Bush administration so they felt they could speak clearly. In the past senior Americans had not dared to be so blunt, partly for fear that the Iraqis might take them at their word and ask them to leave.

Now the crisis in Iraq was so dire that the Americans felt they could take the risk. The Iraqi prime minister was as beleaguered and isolated in the Green Zone as the American ambassador. There was no way Maliki would dare to call for US troops to go.

Bush’s first response to the Baker-Hamilton Report was cool, but in a nationally televised speech in January 2007, in which he also announced a “surge” of 30,000 extra US troops to Iraq, he endorsed the “obey-us-or-we-leave” line. Taking up a series of promises made by Maliki, Bush turned them into “benchmarks” (rather than Baker’s “milestones”). Continuing US support would depend on their implementation, he said. “I’ve made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people,” Bush warned.

The benchmarks consisted of a new law to share oil revenues fairly throughout Iraq, a softening of the de-Baathification laws, amendments to the constitution, and for more money from Iraq’s budget to go towards reconstruction. The trouble with the benchmarks, as some senators and congresspeople saw it, was that they were vague. The USA appeared to be threatening a pull-out but without a mechanism for judging if and when the benchmarks had been reached. The Democratic majority in the US Congress tried to correct that by linking the amount of funds that the US could spend in Iraq to periodic reports by the White House on Iraqi compliance.

The dispute continued throughout 2007, both in Washington and Baghdad. In the USA the struggle was between an increasingly recalcitrant Congress and a president who was determined to bequeath the Iraq mess to his successor rather than admit defeat. In Baghdad the battle was between the Americans and the Iraqi government. The USA tried everything, from giving signals that it was looking for a replacement for Maliki that would involve a new coalition led by Iyad Allawi to direct threats that the USA would withdraw its support. In June it even sent Admiral William Fallon, the top American military commander in the Middle East, to sit down with Maliki. According to normal protocol a senior military officer would not discuss politics with a foreign prime minister. On this occasion, there were no such inhibitions. To make sure the message would go public, Fallon and Crocker invited a New York Times correspondent to attend the meeting. The admiral “warned Iraq’s prime minister that the Iraqi government needs to make tangible political progress by next month to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress,” the paper reported. “You have the power,” Fallon said. “You should take the initiative.”

The Fallon meeting was only the latest in a long series of US pressure tactics. Taken as a whole, they illustrated the farce of sovereignty.

Even more strangely, at least at first sight, Fallon raised the oil law. This had long been one of Washington’s top issues since the law was drafted with US advisers’ help and gave very generous terms over Iraq’s lucrative but undeveloped reserves to foreign oil companies. They were more favorable to foreign companies than any concessions given by other states in the region, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Fallon asked Maliki whether the law would be passed within the next month.

The Fallon meeting was only the latest in a long series of US pressure tactics. Taken as a whole, they illustrated the farce of sovereignty. An Iraqi government that was meant to be in charge of its own country was in hock to a military occupation. It was too frightened to ask for it to end and too sectarian in its outlook to make a political deal with the resistance or with its parliamentary opponents, yet too proud to do things in the way or at the pace the Americans wanted.

The dilemmas will remain until Iraq regains its independence. An Iraqi government that the USA is propping up will never have the strength to ask it to leave, even as many of its members make private arrangements to abandon Iraq and seek refuge abroad. Some have dual passports from their time in exile under Saddam. Others are seeking visas for their families and themselves.

A US decision to withdraw its troops is the only way to cut the knot.

Jonathan Steele is the author of Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq.

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