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.