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      After Nearly Nine Years of War and Occupation, Obama to Withdraw All US Troops From Iraq

      A version of this story appeared at The Nation on October 19, 2011.

      In a stunning and largely unexpected victory for the American peace movement and Iraqi opponents of the US occupation, the Associated Press reported October 16 that virtually all US troops will withdraw from Iraq as scheduled by this December 31.

      Assuming the report is true, the US pullout will allow President Obama to keep an important promise, and the Iraqi government to defend its sovereign power.

      Remaining behind in Baghdad, however, will be the world's largest US embassy, the size of eighty football fields, with some 5,000 staff, including private contractors. There may be some 160 active-duty US soldiers attached to the embassy, according to the AP story. Thousands more US troops will likely be redeployed over the border to Kuwait.

      According to the AP account, the Iraqis rejected intense Pentagon lobbying to retain a “residual” force of thousands of US troops. Earlier this year, the Pentagon was insisting on 10,000–15,000 troops at a minimum, a number that was slashed to a slender 3,000–4,000 troop proposal by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a few weeks ago.

      The main sticking point was the US demand for immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for American troops. The Iraqi Parliament rejected immunity, citing memories of torture at Abu Ghraib and reckless shootings of civilians by American contractors during the conflict.

      Withdrawing the 48,000 remaining US troops will save approximately $50 billion annually. The direct cost of the Iraq War over the past decade has been $800 billion, with indirect expenditures like veterans’ care pushing the long-term cost into the range of $6 trillion, in the estimate of scholars Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz. More than 4,500 Americans have lost their lives in the conflict, while more than 32,000 were wounded. Iraq itself remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with millions of dead, wounded and displaced people.

      Aside from the AP, the mainstream media downplayed or missed the story announcing the end of the American war. The New York Times ran a short account on page 11, saying the Panetta proposal for training Iraqi troops had been “scaled back” to “far less” than the 3,000–5,000 figure. “No final decision on a remaining force had been reached,” the Times quoted White House and Pentagon sources as saying.

      The American withdrawal will be met with chagrin by many neoconservatives and the military, and with skepticism by many who distrust White House promises. But the decision is consistent with the demands of American peace groups, who called for an end to the occupation and to “bring our troops home.”

      Early opposition to the war arose in October 2002, when 100,000 Americans demonstrated in Washington, DC, a protest that was virtually ignored by the media. From that year to 2008, there were more than ten national protests of more than 100,000, several nearing a half-million, coordinated usually by United For Peace and Justice and ANSWER. The February 2003 protests were global, perhaps the largest coordinated anti-war rallies in history. Public opinion was turning against the war as a “mistake” by 2007. Groups like Pacifica and MoveOn were invigorated as independent media and online networks.

      Iraq became the driving issue that undermined the Republican Congressional majority in 2006 and helped Barack Obama win the Iowa primary and other progressive states in 2008. Then peace forces became stretched thin in opposing the Afghanistan war, the Pakistan war and taking up other crises, from global warming to economic recession and Wall Street bailouts. The Pentagon claimed triumph in the “surge” of 2007–08, but it was too late for anything but “redeployment,” or disguised withdrawal, after 2008. The Baker-Hamilton Report, which called for phased withdrawal while leaving behind a residual force, became the establishment template for Iraq in 2008. Candidate Obama endorsed the Baker-Hamilton recommendations as a general platform.

      After he was elected, however, Obama pledged on February 27, 2009, at the Marine base at Camp Lejeune to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2011. It wasn’t spelled out, but this would mean that American advisers, trainers and counterterrorism units would be stationed somewhere over the horizon, but not in Iraq. This was a commitment he had not made before, and it was disputed by elements in the military who felt they owned Iraq. The president slipped the stronger commitment into the Camp Lejeune speech at the last minute, before the Pentagon knew. A debate then erupted over the so-called “residual” force question, with Obama adopting a more flexible posture. Obama maintained the withdrawal pace as scheduled, while letting it be known that he was “open” to revisiting the residual force question—but only if requested by the Iraqis, albeit with obvious behind-the-scenes American pressure.

      No one knew Obama’s ultimate intentions as the endgame unfolded. He certainly encouraged the Pentagon to lean on the Iraqis, but he must have known that immunity for American troops would be a hard, if not impossible, sell. Panetta’s recent statement was a sign that the residual force would be token, or face-saving, at best. The government in Baghdad, installed in power by the Americans, funded by the Americans and armed by the Americans, would not yield on the question of immunity. Internal Iraqi politics obviously played an important role, with the Shiite bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr vociferously opposed to whatever offers were being put forward. According to the AP, Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki told the diplomatic corps that he could not win approval of immunity from the Iraqi Parliament, where the Sadr bloc is significant.

      In the end, however, the Iraqi government stands to gain points with the Iraqi public for taking a stand in favor of sovereignty, and Obama with the American public for keeping his promise.

      With little more than two months before the December 31 deadline, another round of talks is always possible. So, too, is an increase in sectarian strife. The US withdrawal is favored by Iran and opposed by Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s Shiite majority and government is linked on multiple levels with Iran, while Saudi Arabia maintains support for Iraq’s Sunnis, roughly 20 percent of the population, who dominated the country under Saddam Hussein. One might say that the US policy has delivered Iraq to the orbit of Iran, though obviously Iraq is an Arab country with its own history, including a major war in the 1980s with Iran.

      When and if the deal is closed, it is not known whether reparations—under any name—will be made to Iraq, by whom nor in what amount. Nor what kind of closure might be realized by American veterans and their families. The near-absence of mainstream commentary at the moment could be an indicator of a prolonged postwar amnesia.

      But if the withdrawal is completed on schedule, there could be a ceremony in Baghdad far different from the one once envisioned by President Bush when he announced that the mission was accomplished. Who knows—the American forces may even get the red carpet treatment as they leave for home.

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      Reader Comments (6)

      I always thought the war in Vietnam would end by Congress defunding the war. I was very encouraged by amendments attached to bills by Al Gore's father and Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon and other senators who were opposed to the war. Once the US troops left in 1973, I thought the fighting couldn't go on any longer...two years later, after the soldiers of Generals Thieu and Ky refused to fight any more, opposition to reunification ended. The Americans evacuated in a panicky fashion.

      In this horrible war in Iraq, how ironic is it that the Americans are forced to leave? We created for the Pentagon a democratic monster: namely, the Iraqis have a weak government with a legislative system that won't extend the American participation. It's so interesting how American wars are turned off at the tap. Can we get out of Afghanistan without turning Pakistan into a bombed out Laos now that the CIA identifies the Paks as the source of aggression in the area? As Sen. Gruening of Alaska famously said in the 1960s, "We should declare victory and leave." This probably could work. The press is mostly asleep. Americans are in the middle of football season. And the Republicans are squabbling over who is more conservative and has the best set of budget cuts in the pack. Obama needs to declare victory and thank the troops.

      October 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Barnes

      Tom, please do not just take Obama's word for it. I will not do that. I have to see all troops out of Iraq before I believe this. Actually, Obama should have withdrawn the troops two years ago. And once the troops are out of Iraq, what about Afghanistan? I will not remain silent on this issue until we have peace al all levels, and I stand by that through thick and thin. No one will move me!

      October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Hofer

      I don't agree it's such a great victory when all Obama has done is to transfer the war to Afghanistan from Iraq. In addition now he has expanded the number of countries involved to Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and is now talking about regime change in Syria and has sent a fighting force to Uganda. With 100,000 soliders and contract workers in Afghanistan we are spending billions per month, racking up totalities, and killing many civilians. And the ending date has been pushed up to 2014 now. Obama represents more militarism now than Bush even it seems. And some in the democratic base is soooo pleased that he has been has tough as a Republican in the murderous bombing campaign in Libya pushed by Hillary Clinton.

      October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVal Eisman

      Tom, Here in Sweden the peace movement very much appreciate Your efforts and reliable information. However one should be careful with the ifs and buts in Obamas policy statements. If they leave Iraq this would be a stunning victory, I agree. So we will see. As for Afghanistan Obama is stubbornly upholding the war on a double or treble level compared to Bush. While the US hasn't withdrawn one single soldier, the allies are gettin weary and for the first time in 10 year decreased the participation in Nato-Isaf with 1.711 men between june and august and now the withdrawal is accelerating.
      Besides doubling the afghan war and repeating promises on Iraq the Obama administration has just crushed another country that was about to become the first african country to fullfill the UN Millennium goals, Libya, now in ruins with bandits running amok. Also he has repealed the Ford/Reagan Executive Orders on assassinations in conducting the medieval hunt for colonel Ghadaffis scalp.
      What about costs? I am not talking about the four trillions. The political costs! The UN scyscraper has mentally gone the same way as Twin Towers. To rubbles. Just take resolution 1973 and switch all words referring to civilian population in Benghazi with references to Sirte and Ben Walid and ju see the giant bluff of R2P. It is just R2K, right to kill. Nothing but.

      October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstefan lindgren

      Also, the US is being forced to leave as the Iraqis have stated no US trainers will be immune from prosecution after December. So who are we fooling Tom Hadyn and Barbara Lee that this was a victory for the anti-war movement? Obama's was FORCED by the Iraqi government to make this drawdown. Painting it as Obama being responsive to us is grossly untrue. He couldn't care less. He only responds to the Right.

      October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVal Eisman

      My thanks for your persistence . A most important precedent has been set with the US now refusing to send troops if the recipient country will not waive the right for prosecution of soldiers for war crimes. this is far from an end to forceful intervention but it is an important step and could leadto further troop reductions in other countries. Now if the same is done with Afghanistan I will stop returning my Democratic Party fundraising requests with the reply, "Stop the wars , then ask again.."

      October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarc Pilisuk
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