Juan Cole: Why US Troops Have to Begin Leaving Iraq Now





The hundreds of thousands of protesters who came out throughout the world on Saturday were demanding a US and British withdrawal from Iraq.

The protesters are right that we have to get US ground troops out of Iraq.

The issue is not the rights and wrongs of the war. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no nuclear program, and the mushroom clouds with which Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice menaced us were figments of their fevered imaginations, no more substantial than the hateful internal voices that afflict schizophrenics.

But that is not a reason to get the ground troops out now.

The issue is not the lack of operational cooperation between the secular, socialist, Arab nationalist Baath Party of Iraq and the religious fanatics of al-Qaeda. There was no such operational involvement. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah were captured before the Iraq War, and told their American interrogators that al-Qaeda had refused to cooperate with Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration deliberately hid this crucial information from the American people, and puzzled US intelligence officials who knew about it were astounded to see Cheney and others continually go on television and assert that Saddam and Bin Laden were in cahoots in the build-up to the war.

But that is not a reason to get the ground troops out now.

That US soldiers are dying in Iraq, with the number approaching 2,000, is a tragedy. But it is not in and of itself a reason to get the troops out of Iraq. We lost some 1700 at Guam alone in World War II. The question is whether a war is worth fighting, not its human toll, since a much worse human toll may result from giving up the fight (if the US could have launched D-Day in 1940, the Holocaust might never have happened).

So that is not a reason to get the ground troops out now.

The first reason to get the ground troops out now is that they are being fatally brutalized by their own treatment of Iraqi prisoners. Abu Ghraib was horrific, and we who are not in Congress or the Department of Defense have still only seen a fraction of the photographs of it that exist. Sy Hersh learned of rapes, some of them documented. Human Rights Watch has documented further prisoner abuse by US troops in Iraq. Sometimes the troops just go in and break arms or legs out of frustration. It has long been obvious that the Abu Ghraib scandal was only the tip of the iceberg, and that the abusive practices were allowed and encouraged by Rumsfeld and high officers, and weren't some aberration among a few corporals. (Even Senator Frist may be involved in a cover-up of the torture.) There is also no reason to think that the abuses have ceased. The denials of the US military, based on its own internal investigations (which apparently involve looking at official reports filed and talking to officers in charge) are pretty pitiful. The brutalization of the US military and of its prisoners is a brutalization of the entire American public. It is an undermining of the foundational values of the Republic. We cannot remain Americans and continue to behave this way routinely. The some 15,000 Iraqis in American custody are all by now undying enemies of the United States. Some proportion of them started out that way but perhaps could have been won over. Some of the detainees were probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a time in US prison camps, they will hate us forever. And they know where thousands of tons of hidden munitions are.

The second reason is that the ground troops are not accomplishing the mission given them, and are making things worse rather than better.

When Saddam Hussein first fell, the Sunni Arab elites were mostly quiet, and were waiting to see what their relations with the US would be like. Fallujah was less troublesome than Shiite Najaf in the first weeks of April. But the US insisted on garrisoning troops in a local school, which alarmed parents that their children might be endangered. They mounted a demonstration, and green US troops panicked and shot 17 civilian demonstrators. That began a feud between the clans to which the dead belonged and the US army, which, in the way of feuds, grew over time. By March of 2004, anti-American feeling was so virulent that crowds attacked, killed and mutilated four private security guards, one of them a South African. George W. Bush took the attack personally, and ordered an assault on Fallujah. (Norman Mailer thinks the Iraq War is about white guys making it clear that brown guys are not going to be allowed to lay a glove on them.) The spring attack on Fallujah, however, was extremely unpopular among Iraqis, and members of the US-appointed Interim Governing Council began resigning or threatening to resign. Even the Shiites in Kufa sent aid. The US backed off Fallujah.

In summer of 2003, there had been a growing, low-intensity guerrilla conflict in the Sunni Arab areas. But large areas were relatively quiet, including the city of Mosul (with a population of about a million). A lot of Sunnis were still on the fence.

Then after Bush won reelection, in November of 2004, Bush sent the Marines into Fallujah. He emptied a city of 300,000, turning the residents into refugees and the homeless no less surely than the hurricanes have done to the inhabitants of New Orleans more recently. The American assault damaged 2/3s of the buildings in Fallujah and left it a ghost town. In the past few months, some Fallujans have been allowed to return, and a few neighborhoods are functioning (shown, like the facade in the Jim Carrey vehicle, The Truman Show, to gullible Western journalists as evidence that everything is hunky dory). Other Fallujans are living in tents atop the rubble of their former homes. There are still bombings and daily mortar fire in the area. I noted an Aljazeerah report of a mortar shell falling near a US position not so long ago, and asked here why the US press did not report it. Someone with a relative serving in the US military in that area wrote to say that they take mortar fire all the time and it was unremarkable. The propaganda line was that "Fallujah is the safest city in Iraq." But US troops have been killed there not so long ago, and the slogan is clearly not true.

The reaction among the Sunni Arabs to the Fallujah campaign was immediate and explosive. They mounted large-scale urban revolts and rebellions virtually everywhere. Ramadi, Samarra, Qaim, Heet, you name it. The coup de grace was Mosul. Some 4,000 Iraqi policemen abruptly resigned. Masked men appeared on the streets and set up checkpoints. Mosul went over to the guerrilla movement, and substantial portions of it are still unstable.

Mosul contains about a fifth of the Sunni Arabs! It had been quiet. It was a model, under Gen. Petraeus. Now it had exploded. It became unsafe.

The Great Sunni Arab Revolt of November-December 2004 was a direct result of the Fallujah campaign.

It was a disaster, and not just on security grounds. The Great Revolt made it impossible for the Sunni Arabs to participate in the January 30, 2005 elections. Their areas were too insecure, or too sullen, to vote. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group descended from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, had announced a slate of 275 candidates for parliament. They were withdrawn. The cooperation vanished.

The Sunni Arabs only managed to elect 17 deputies to the Parliament on Jan. 30, out of 275 seats. Three of the 17 were gifts from the major Shiite coalition (which led the more hard line Sunnis to decline to cooperate with those 3). The Sunni Arabs were virtually absent. Who was present? The election was won by the religious Shiite parties, especially the Da`wa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Even the Sadrists, most of whom were lukewarm about involvement in politics under Occupation, had more deputies than did the Sunnis! The Shiite religious parties despise the ex-Baathists (i.e. most of the Sunnis). The other winners were the Kurds, who wanted to safeguard their semi-autonomy and if anything hated the Sunni Arabs more than did the religious Shiites.

And now the elected parliament drafted the constitution. The Sunni Arabs were included in the negotiations, rather as an eccentric uncle might receive a half-hearted invitation to stay for dinner, but would then be politely ignored, as he twittered on about some conspiracy theory, or sometimes greeted with giggles by the ruder children.

The constitution that was fashioned by the religious Shiites and the Kurds unsurprisingly contains all sorts of goodies for Shiites and Kurds, but cuts the Sunni Arabs permanently out of the deal. Substantial proportions of the oil income will stay in the provinces (i.e. Kurdistan and the Shiite South) rather than going to Baghdad. All future oil fields that are discovered and developed will be the sole property of the provincial confederation in which they are found. Most such likely fields are in the Shiite areas. (There are rumors of a field off Fallujah, but it is not a sure thing).

All the major Sunni Arab organizations and respected political and clerical figures have come out against the constitution.

In the meantime, the US has now attacked another Sunni city, this time the Turkmen stronghold of Tal Afar. In the continued "scorched earth" policy of the US military in the Sunni areas, a joint US/ Iraqi (mostly Kurdish) force appears to have levelled entire neighborhoods in Tal Afar, a northern Turkmen city, making most of its 200,000 inhabitants refugees living in squalid tent camps or with friends and relatives elsewhere. The operation yielded relatively few arrested terrorists. There is a news blackout on Tal Afar imposed by the US and the Iraqi authorities. This move is draconian and anyway unnecessary, since the American cable news channels have already imposed a global news blackout in favor of playing "Weather Channel" 24/7. Members of a Red Crescent delegation reached Tal Afar, but had their cell phones confiscated, were told to distribute aid in a remote and little known part of the city, and ended up mainly giving help to the displaced persons in their tent settlements: ' Hasan Bal, a member of the Red Crescent team that went to Tal Afar, stressed that theirs was a very difficult mission. ''The people and especially the children in Tal Afar are living in miserable conditions. Their conditions are indescribable. It is practically impossible not to cry for them,'' noted Bal. '

Basically, if all the US military in Iraq is capable of is operations like Fallujah and Tal Afar, then they really need to get out of the country quick before they drive the whole country, and the region, into chaos.

Even as they are chasing after shadows in dusty border towns, the US military is allowing much of Baghdad to fall into the hands of the guerrillas.

And that is why we have to get the ground troops out. Counter-insurgency has to have both a military and a political track. Even as the enemy is being pressed, you have to reach out to the civilian leadership and try to draw them into a truce.

The US military has had no political successes in the Sunni Arab areas. Mosul and some parts of Baghdad could have been pointed to in summer of 2004. In summer of 2005, these earlier successes have evaporated like a desert mirage toward which thirsty soldiers race.

The situation in the Sunni Arab areas was worse in summer of 2004 than it had been in summer of 2003. It is worse in the summer of 2005 than it had been in 2004. Even the Iraqi political groupings that had earlier been willing to cooperate with the US boycotted the Jan. 30 elections and are now assiduously working to defeat the new constitution.

Things in the Sunni Arab areas are getting worse, not better.

I conclude that the presence of the US ground troops is making things worse, not better.

Let's get them out, now, before they destroy any more cities, create any more hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, provoke any more ethnic hatreds by installing Shiite police in Fallujah or Kurdish troops in Turkmen Tal Afar. They are sowing a vast whirlwind, a desert sandstorm of Martian proportions, which future generations of Americans and Iraqis will reap.

The ground troops must come out. Now. For the good of Iraq. For the good of America.


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