Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Watching and waiting: al-Sadr's strategy to defeat the occupation

Published by Online Journal at:

On the morning of March 19, on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I stood with a small group of protesters outside U.S. Southern Command Headquarters in Miami. A reporter asked me whether I felt frustrated.

"The war seems to be endless," she volunteered.

"No," I told her, "it's not endless. It's definitely going to end. The only question is whether it will end sooner rather than later, and how much more death and destruction our government and armed forces are going to inflict on the people of Iraq in the meantime."

In the looking glass world of American political commentary, U.S. forces are fighting to establish peace and order in Iraq. On April 10, George W. Bush gave a speech claiming that reduced violence in Iraq was a sign of success. In the same speech, however, Bush praised his Badr Brigade allies for the recent escalation of violence in Basra, and Israeli-trained U.S. Special Forces for a nightly campaign of targeted assassination that has been murdering Iraqis in their beds for more than four years. Seymour Hersh and Julian Borger broke that story in December 2003.

Bush declared, "In the period ahead, we will stay on the offense against the enemy. As we speak, U.S. Special Forces are launching multiple operations every night to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders in Iraq. Coalition and Iraqi forces are also stepping up conventional operations against al Qaeda in northern Iraq, where terrorists have concentrated after being largely pushed from central and western Iraq. And Prime Minister Maliki's government has launched operations in Basra that make clear a free Iraq will no longer tolerate the lawlessness by Iranian-backed militants."

In reality, as Bush implied, any prospect of peace in Iraq poses a serious threat to the goals that drove the United States to invade Iraq in the first place, and have kept U.S. forces stuck there ever since. This is not hard to understand. Iraq is scheduled to hold provincial elections in October, and to elect a new Constituent Assembly next year. If these elections take place under remotely fair and peaceful conditions, independent, nationalist parties opposed to the U.S. occupation are sure to make a clean sweep, with Muqtada al-Sadr's wing of the Dawa Party, the Basra-based Fadilha (Justice) Party and nationalist Sunni parties handing pro-occupation parties a similar defeat to that suffered by America's first Iraqi puppet Iyad Allawi in 2005. The next step would be the election of a national government that will order U.S. occupation forces out of the country.

This is what makes the whole situation such a hot potato for the next American president. Without endless and ultimately unsustainable injections of American violence, the occupation of Iraq was always destined to end this way. No permanent bases -- no privatization of the oil industry -- no puppet government. This was the result predicted by Bush Senior's advisers in 1990 when they counseled against invading Iraq. "Sooner or later they'll have an election, and our guys will lose." Our government has destroyed Iraq in a desperate effort to keep this inevitable outcome at bay, with five years of air strikes, American and Iraqi death squads, torture, devastation and terror.

In the meantime, the present Iraqi Constituent Assembly established by the fraudulent U.S.-backed political process is still refusing to pass a law to privatize Iraq's oil industry. It also attempted to prevent the renewal of the U.N. mandate for the "Multi-National Force" in Iraq last December. And these were supposed to be our Iraqis. The lists of names that were not revealed to voters until the day of the election in 2005 included dozens of exiles eager to claim their share of power and wealth as America's allies in the new Iraq. Now most of those exiles have returned to London, Washington, Tehran and wherever else they came from, and the Assembly can barely make a quorum. And many of the representatives who remain are actually standing up for their own country's interests in the face of American bribes, threats and blackmail.

Oil privatization has always been a primary goal of the U.S. occupation. The members of Dick Cheney's 2001 Energy Task Force understood that growth in Asia was bound to swell the demand side of the world oil market for many years to come. And they understood painfully well that, as a result of the nationalization of the oil industry in every major oil-producing country since the 1970s, the bulk of the huge profits from increasing demand and rising prices would flow into the coffers of OPEC governments, instead of to the shareholders of Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron. Before World War II, BP paid only a 16 percent royalty for the privilege of extracting oil from Iran. Now it has to buy it at full price on the open market.

The oil companies are doing incredibly well as it is, but just imagine their position if the nationalization of the major producers' oil industries had never happened, or could somehow be reversed. They could now be sharing in the massive profits from the production of oil in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and elsewhere. With production costs for Iraqi oil still at $1 or $1.50 a barrel, and the same barrel selling for $113 on the world market, even a modest share of production revenues would bring unprecedented profits to the major oil companies. And reversing the nationalization of the oil industry in one of the major oil-producing countries could be the first step to regaining control of the world oil market. James Paul explained this in greater detail in his article, "Oil in Iraq: the Heart of the Crisis," in December 2002.

Well, surprise, surprise! This is exactly what the U.S.-backed Iraqi oil law is designed to do. Before the invasion, the U.S. State Department's Oil and Energy Working Group recommended that Iraq "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war," and favored "production sharing agreements" as the most promising vehicle for doing this. An oil industry consultant from London, named Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, who was a member of the State Department working group, was appointed as oil minister in the transitional occupation government in 2005, and he began the process of drafting a law based on precisely that model.

Under the new law, in addition to sharing in oil production revenues, Western oil companies would hold a controlling majority on the board that would allocate new oil production contracts. While the Iraqi National Oil Company would retain control of 17 oil fields that are already in production, it would have to compete with foreign companies for contracts to develop 63 other fields that it has already discovered, as well as other fields that are discovered in the future.

The oil law would also grant foreign oil companies the rights to repatriate 100 percent of their profits, to bring in unlimited quantities of cheap labor from outside Iraq, as Western contractors are already doing in other industries, and to exclude Iraqi companies, technicians and workers from oil field operations in their own country. If the present Constituent Assembly will not swallow this bitter pill, the chances of ramming it through any future one are slimmer still.

The Constituent Assembly also asserted its authority on the renewal of the U.N. Security Council mandate for the "multi-national force" in Iraq. Under Iraq's Constitution, the Maliki government was required to consult the Assembly before requesting the renewal of the MNF mandate. When the government failed to submit its request to the Assembly, a majority of the Assembly's members signed a letter to the Security Council explaining that the government's MNF renewal request was not constitutional. The Security Council ignored the Assembly and the Constitution, and renewed the mandate regardless, but the Assembly once again demonstrated that it has escaped from American control.

Muqtada al-Sadr's Islamist social philosophy is not progressive by Western standards. But one thing he shares with other popular leaders like Gandhi and King is the understanding that the moral contradictions of oppressors or occupiers can be the key to defeating them. Just as Gandhi challenged the British to behave like Christians, and King challenged America to "live out the true meaning of its creed," Sadr understands that America is likewise caught in a web of its own contradictions in Iraq. Without violence, there is no rationale for continued occupation. If Sadr maintains his ceasefire, there is no reason to cancel elections or to exclude his party from them.

The Americans, like the British in India or the segregationists in the American South, are being forced to choose between committing even greater violence and ceding political power to Iraqis who oppose the occupation. As Gandhi said, "First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win." Once a popular leader or movement can no longer be ignored or marginalized, there are few good options. Bush has chosen violence at every turn, but he has succeeded only in killing a million people, prolonging the conflict and raising the stakes for his successor.

When American, British and Badr Brigades forces attacked Basra at the end of March, U.S. officials claimed that they had no part in the new offensive, and only became involved in order to rescue their Iraqi allies. And yet U.S. forces soon became fully engaged in operations in Basra and elsewhere, and have now launched a new offensive in Sadr City. It seems that the Badr offensive in Basra was a classic provocation to draw out the Sadrists and other resistance forces around the country, so that their sanctuaries can now be targeted by air strikes, house raids and death squads.

Al-Sadr has responded by reiterating his cease-fire, once again refusing to be drawn into the kind of widespread armed resistance that could lead to his party's exclusion from the political process. He knows that time and history are on his side. Sooner or later, as long as he plays his cards correctly, this will end. The Americans will leave, and he or a successor can start to pick up the broken pieces of their country.

If America is to salvage its own position in the world, it must find a face-saving way out of Iraq. All over the world, from Pakistan and Nepal to Ecuador and Guatemala, popular political movements are overturning militarist regimes allied with the United States. In Iraq, the mask of American "values" has slipped too far, exposing the true nature of the powerful interests that control U.S. policy. The war in Iraq is forcing Americans to confront the practical, moral and legal contradictions of their government's policies. This is a crisis of historic proportions, but the final result may yet be a wiser, safer, fairer, more humane and more peaceful America. It's up to us.


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