Monday, April 25, 2011

Iraq's own Arab spring

Jonathan Steele

A renewed sense of nationalism is uniting protesters over delays to US troop withdrawal

Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr burn US flags during a rally marking
the eighth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on April 9.
Stretched close to the limit by combat in Afghanistan and determined not to get into a ground war in Libya, the Pentagon is stepping up the pressure to maintain a huge US troop presence in today's largely peaceful Iraq. What might seem at first sight strange and unnecessary is in fact fully in line with the ambitions of those who planned the invasion eight years ago. Whether neocons or "realists", they always wanted to have a long-term political and military footprint in the northern sector of the Middle East, strategically placed between Syria and Iran.

As with so many elements of the geopolitical strategy he inherited from George Bush, Barack Obama has gone along with it. So it should be no surprise that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chief of staffs, was in Baghdad on Friday urging the government to amend the agreement under which all US forces have to leave Iraq by the end of this year. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, was in the Iraqi capital on a similar mission a few weeks earlier.

Both Sunni and Shia protesters were on the streets last week to denounce the US plans, united by a common sense of nationalism that has not been seen since the first year of the US occupation, before sectarian divisions were artificially inflamed. In Mosul around 5,000 people, including provincial council members and tribal leaders, rallied against any extension of the US presence, while supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr marched in Baghdad.

A revival of national pride played a large role in persuading the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to stand firm against the Bush administration in its last months of office when the White House was forced to agree to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq last summer and accept a deadline of the end of this year for the remaining 47,000 to leave.

Mullen and Gates have been warning the Iraqi government that the risk of Arab/Kurdish clashes over the country's oil deposits around Kirkuk and a lingering threat from al-Qaida require US troops to stay. The counter-argument is that Iraq has survived the withdrawal of US combat troops for nine months without any breakdown of security. At a time when Arabs throughout the region are struggling to win their rights and dignity, why should Iraq submit to the humiliation of a large US ground force that no other Arab country in the region consents to?

Unlike the end of 2008, when the agreement on US forces was reached, Sadr now has a contingent of ministers in government, and it should be easier for Maliki to resist the Americans. He is facing his own "Arab spring" pressures after thousands joined Day of Rage protests in February over unemployment, corruption and lack of electricity. Twenty people died after security forces opened fire. Maliki would be foolish to give them a new cause to oppose him.

The looming row comes hard on the heels of last week's publication of official documents showing that several months before the 2003 invasion Tony Blair's government agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP's behalf. The case it made was that British companies ought to benefit from post-Saddam oil contracts if Britain supported regime change.

The documents were obtained under Freedom of Information requests by the energy industry expert, Greg Muttitt, for his excellent book, Fuel on the Fire, an investigation of western corporate activities in Iraq. Though the documents do not support the simplistic claim that the invasion was "all about oil", they show that taking control of Iraq's nationalised oil sector was an important lure. The book's most interesting sections deal with the post-invasion period, when US and British diplomats and other officials worked closely with the oil majors to get the Iraqi government to privatise the oil fields and give favourable contracts to foreign companies – despite brave resistance from oil workers, trade unions, and Iraq's corps of professional engineers (most of whom were conveniently sidelined for having been Baathists).

It is a textbook example of how international pressures are put on politicians to get them to buckle. Hussain al-Shahristani, the oil minister, emerges as a tragic figure. A nuclear scientist who was tortured for refusing to support Saddam Hussein's ambitions, he fled the country – but unlike other prominent exiles opposed the US invasion. Yet once in power he banned the oil workers' union, ordered police raids on their offices, and seized their assets.

In dealing with the oil companies he also seemed tough by getting BP and other companies to accept lower fees than they had demanded for every barrel of oil extracted. But, as Muttitt points out after close reading of BP's Rumaila contract, several changes agreed after the auction hugely weakened the ministry's original terms.

The lesson is that full transparency and unhurried public debate are as crucial when offering a country's natural resources to powerful outsiders as they are when offering long-term military bases. National sovereignty requires no less.

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