An exit strategy based on Iraqi nationalism

Posted in Iraq | 05-May-04 | Author: William Pfaff| Source: Tribune Media Services International

Limiting the damage

PARIS - The outline of a policy to get the United States out of Iraq, limiting further damage to Americans and Iraqis, is now becoming visible.

Unlike proposals that some American analysts and former diplomats have made for dividing Iraq into ethnic or religious federal entities - which the United States today is scarcely in a position to attempt - this plan would keep the country together.

It relies on Iraqi national interest and Iraqi nationalism. The latter is often dismissed, with the comment that Iraq "only became a nation in the 1920s." The implication is that several loose and ethnically incompatible bits of the old Ottoman Empire were stuck together by British imperial officials, and could easily be taken apart today by their American successors.

The modern Iraqi state is roughly coterminous with Mesopotamia, the oldest of the Middle Eastern civilizations. It emerged 3,000 to 5,000 years ago in the fertile land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and remained a coherent cultural and political entity over the millennia, through the brilliant era of the Arab Abbasid caliphate and its successors in Baghdad, continuing through the Ottoman Empire that followed, lasting until 1918.

Iraq's 20th century resistance to foreign threats has typically been national in character, not separatist, beginning with the revolts against British occupation in the 1920s.

British rule was contested during World War II, continuing until the 1958 rebellion in which the British-installed monarch - a Hashemite Arab - was murdered and Iraq was proclaimed a secular republic.

Sunnis and Shiites fought together against Shiite Iran from 1980 to 1988. Some Shiites rallied to support the Sunni insurgents in Falluja in late April.

Iraqi nationalism today is fueled by the American occupation. The political confusion and heavy-handedness of the occupation, and the toll of civilian victims, contribute to it, but fundamentally the current violent resistance to the United States is an inevitable reaction against foreign military occupation.

The longer the occupation continues, the more powerful the nationalist reaction becomes, driving even Iraqis disposed to sympathy with America's proclaimed objectives into solidarity with the resistance.

I wrote in this space last January that "no leader will be able to rally Iraq, or its major religious or ethnic components (except the Kurds), whose program is not national sovereignty, an end to the occupation and departure of American troops, and national renewal on Iraq's own terms. That means an Iraq in full control of its resources, its security, and its foreign policy. "

The notion that American forces are essential to "stabilize" Iraq is illusion. American forces destabilize Iraq - as Iraqis themselves keep trying to explain to Americans.

The situation will almost certainly get worse next month when the time comes for the occupation authority to hand over "sovereignty." According to present reports, the United States has no intention of handing over sovereignty.

It wants to keep control of all armed force in the country, make use of that force at its own discretion, with American forces enjoying extraterritorial status and legal immunities, and to exercise a veto over the legislative decisions of whatever Iraqi government takes office.

If Washington insists on this, there will be no UN-sponsored new government, nor the new United Nations Security Council resolution Washington wants in order to rally NATO and other international help in Iraq.

What can be done?

First, the reality of legitimate Iraqi nationalism must be admitted, with recognition that the United States cannot keep military, economic and political domination in Iraq, however this may be disguised, without meeting Iraqi resistance.

Moreover, neither the UN nor any American ally - probably not even Britain - will back the United States in trying to keep control against resistance. Violence will continue, and worsen, with the United States isolated (and experiencing intense internal controversy, as during the Vietnam war).

I wrote above that a specific plan for getting out is taking shape. The main contributor is William Polk, a former diplomat and government adviser, and founder of the University of Chicago Middle Eastern Studies Center.

Polk argues that the United States not only has to decide to get out, but has to convince the Iraqis - and the United Nations, and others in the international community - that it really intends to do so "with all deliberate speed."

It must make it utterly clear that it will not try to keep economic advantage in Iraq, dominate the use of Iraq's resources, or maintain military bases or forces other than those freely consented to by an internationally legitimate Iraqi government.

It must start devolving meaningful political power, ceding political and economic authority to the United Nations and to whatever provisional Iraqi government is set up.

To this basic program, in my opinion, a timetable has to be added, as retired General William Odom - now of Hudson Institute, who teaches at Yale University and Georgetown University - has recently proposed. Odom wants a unilateral American declaration that it will completely withdraw U.S. troops within six months - regardless of what happens in Iraq, or of what the United Nations and the international community do to deal with the situation.

That is drastic action. It also is essential, since as Odom says, "we have failed; the issue is how high a price we're going to pay."