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How To Get Out Of Iraq

By Sharat G. Lin

19 March, 2008

After five years of unremitting war in Iraq, the U.S. government attributes a decline in violence over the past year to the “troop surge.” While acceding to a partial drawdown of “surge” troops from Iraq, the White House steadfastly insists that a continued troop presence is necessary to “stabilize” the country. Yet there are major indicators that the primary source of instability, both short term and long term, is the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq. While irreversible damage has already been done to the fabric of Iraqi society, all is not yet lost. Ending the occupation will free Iraqis themselves to eliminate the terrorists and forge national reconciliation.

The insurgency in Iraq is primarily an armed resistance to U.S. occupation, not sectarian violence.

In the first year of the war in 2003, over 90% of insurgent attacks were directed against “Coalition” (that is for all practical purposes U.S.) forces according to U.S. military sources. By 2006-2007 the incidence of these attacks had quadrupled. Despite the alleged sectarian violence, insurgent attacks directed against U.S. forces continued to comprise approximately 60 per cent of all insurgent attacks. Considering that an additional 20 per cent of insurgent attacks directed against Iraqi security forces are motivated primarily by perceptions of the Iraqi government collaborating with the U.S., these can also be characterized as armed resistance to U.S. occupation. Of the remaining 20 per cent of insurgent attacks, those against civilians, an unspecified portion are attacks on Iraqi government officials. Another unknown portion is the attacks on persons or organizations perceived to be collaborating with U.S. forces. Conservatively assuming that half of the attacks against civilians are motivated with the intention of targeting “collaborators,” this brings the total fraction of insurgent attacks ultimately motivated by resistance to U.S. occupation in 2006-2007 to approximately 90 per cent of all insurgent attacks.1

This belies the statistically-unsubstantiated notion presented by the Bush administration and echoed by the U.S. media that the violence in Iraq is “sectarian,” and that Iraq is on the verge of “civil war.” In other words, while some Iraqis are fighting Iraqis, this sectarian violence has actually been declining since the peak in October 2006, and represents substantially less than 20 per cent of all insurgent attacks in 2007.

The insurgent attacks against Iraqi government security forces do not mean that Iraqis view their elected government with the same contempt as U.S. occupation forces. An opinion poll published in September 2006 showed that while 61 per cent of Iraqis surveyed approved of attacks against U.S. and other foreign occupation forces, only 4 per cent would approve of attacks on Iraqi government forces, and virtually none would accept attacks on Iraqi civilians. In fact, if one excludes Kurds, who have carved out an effectively self-governing Kurdish republic under the Kurdish flag and Kurdish Regional Government, the fraction of Arab Iraqis who openly approved of attacks against occupation forces rises to nearly 70 per cent.2 In other words, while Iraqis deeply want a restoration of law and order, they decisively reject one imposed by foreign troops.

Sectarian violence is a consequence of U.S. occupation.

Before the first U.S. war on Iraq, launched in February 1991, it was rare for Iraqis to look upon their fellow citizens as Sunni, Shi’a, or Assyrian Christian. Even Kurds and Turkomen, who had different languages and customs from the Arabs, were, for the most part, well integrated into Iraqi society. One set of civil laws governed all communities. With frequent intermarriage, the segregation of religious and ethnic groups had become virtually inconceivable, let alone any thought of partitioning the country.

In fact, while Shi’as had been underrepresented in government under the monarchy, after the nationalist army revolt of 1958 Shi’as came to hold a many leadership posts in the then-emerging Iraqi Ba’ath Party. Even at the highest levels, all ethnic groups were represented. In fact, in 1988, the year of the genocidal al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds, the Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam Hussein consisted of three Arab Sunnis, three Arab Shi’as, one Kurd, and one Assyrian Christian. This is not to defend the Ba’ath Party’s brutal repression in any way, but rather to point out that the underlying struggle was not between ethnic and religious groups. Instead, the fundamental contradiction was between the ruling bureaucratic elites and the working people of all ethnic and religious groups in Iraq.

After the war, twelve years of international sanctions had impoverished the nation, caused the death of hundreds of thousands, and all but destroyed the water and healthcare systems. But the effective division of control over Iraq into three autonomous zones – a northern Kurdish-majority area with its no-fly-zone north of the 36th latitude, a traditionally-Sunni sector in the middle, and a predominantly-Shi’a south with its no-fly-zone south of the 33rd latitude – initiated a process of balkanization. This fostered the re-emergence of regional ethnic and tribal identities that had long been submerged under the pan-ethnic secular nationalism of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party.

Once Iraq was occupied by U.S. forces in 2003, “de-Ba’athification” was justified on the grounds that all former Ba’athists were criminals who could not be trusted in the future governance of Iraq. Many Iraqis resisted the idea, arguing that, with Saddam Hussein deposed, many former Ba’athist officials would readily pledge allegiance to a new government if it were to be truly democratic and free of outside control. They further argued that removing all Ba’athists would effectively dismantle the entire state apparatus, leading to chaos. Recent history has proven them right.

Nevertheless, to counter these arguments, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) branded the former Ba’ath Party as a Sunni Party that would never allow Shi’as and Kurds to play an egalitarian role in a new Iraq. CPA Administrator Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army and allowed the state apparatus under other ministries to crumble, with the notable exception of the Ministry of Petroleum. As a result no ministry of state has yet recovered to its prewar operational levels. Moreover, the communalization of Iraqi politics in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion – assigning different ministries to warring factions, introducing different civil codes for different religious or ethnic communities, relying on diverse militias for security – has created artificial divisions in society and rendered the central government ineffective.

Even when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shi’a religious leader, also opposed the inclusion of former Ba’athists in any new government, he did not distinguish between Sunnis and Shi’as among them, and advocated for ethnic and religious unity in the governance of Iraq. In contrast, it is the U.S. government, the U.S. military leadership, and the established Western media that have relentlessly promulgated a narrative of the Iraqi people as “Shi’as”, “Sunnis”, and “Kurds”. This was and still remains a grotesque distortion of the Iraqi national identity. If anyone asks an Iraqi what sect he or she belongs to, the question will be initially greeted with a sense of puzzlement followed by a reassertion that “I am Iraqi!”

Nevertheless, the incessant pounding of sectarian language and the house-to-house searches where U.S. troops demand to know every man’s religious or ethnic identity have taken an irreversible toll on the once remarkably secular Iraqi national identity. Like Bush’s reasons for going to war, a lie said once is still a lie; a lie repeated ad infinitum becomes “reality”. Five years of unremitting military and civil conflict have moulded a people into a perpetual state of fear – fear of U.S. troops, fear of suicide bombers, fear of al-Qa’ida, fear of Iraqi security forces, fear of Sunni militias, fear of Shi’a militias, fear of Kurdish Peshmerga, fear of any unknown person. The natural defensive response is to retreat into the sympathetic shell of one’s own traditional community. Whether by force or by fear, this has effectively resulted in the ethnic cleansing of urban neighbourhoods. The sectarian social and psychological wounds opened by war will now be very difficult to heal. But they did not exist before the U.S. occupation. They are a direct consequence of it.

Finally, when a community is bombed and there is effectively no non-aligned central governmental authority to restore credible law and order, what is the first reaction of that community? It is to retaliate against some other group. The polls of Iraqi public opinion would suggest that the primary target of retaliation would be against U.S. forces. But U.S. troops live behind massive fortified compounds and are too heavily armed and armored to strike. So the next preferred target of retaliation is against the perceived collaborators with U.S. forces, particularly of another community or group that has come to be perceived as “them” versus “us”. In the poisoned atmosphere of U.S. occupation rhetoric, that “them” is increasingly a community or group of another sect different from “us”. Sunni attacks on other Sunnis and Shi’a attacks on other Shi’as have occurred, but with decreasing frequency as the polarization has increased.

In a public opinion poll taken in mid-2006 by World Public Opinion, 78 per cent of Iraqis thought that the U.S. military presence provokes more conflict than it prevents. Only 21 per cent viewed U.S. troops as a stabilizing force, and much of this support came from Kurds. Among Iraqi Arabs, only some 13 per cent viewed the U.S. military as stabilizing, while 86 per cent viewed it as provoking violence.2

Iraqi public opinion overwhelmingly favors a decisive withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

When polled about whether U.S.-led forces should be asked to withdraw within 6 months or one year, 71 per cent of Iraqis favored this course. Among Arab Iraqis, this sentiment rose to approximately 78 per cent.2 Only among Kurds was there a sentiment for U.S. troops to stay, but this is driven by a fear of losing autonomy to Kurdistan’s more powerful neighbours – Arab Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.

Iraqis view U.S. occupation forces as contributing to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.

Similarly, Iraqi public opinion opposes the U.S. troop “surge”. According to a poll by the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Security Studies in Baghdad, in May 2007 with the “surge” already well underway, 69 per cent said that it would make the security situation worse, while only 16 per cent thought it would improve the situation.3

Looking ahead to the possibility of a complete withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces from Iraq, 53 per cent of Iraqis surveyed in March 2007 believed that the security situation would improve within the weeks immediately following withdrawal. Only 26 per cent thought that the security situation would get worse. Adding the 6 per cent who thought that the security situation would remain the same, 59 per cent believed that the situation would not get worse.4 This is generally consistent with the Iraqi public opinion poll in mid-2006 when 61 per cent felt that the effect of U.S. troop withdrawal would be to increase security and 34 per cent felt it would decrease security.2 Iraqi public opinion also vigorously opposes any kind of permanent U.S. military bases on Iraqi soil.

Even the Iraq Study Group Report, led by James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton in 2006, suggested, “If Iraqis continue to perceive Americans as representing an occupying force, the United States could become its own worst enemy in a land it liberated from tyranny." 5

If U.S. troops leave Iraq, support for al-Qa’ida and terrorism will wither.

Over the past year, there have been increasing reports of mostly-Sunni tribal leaders and independent militias collaborating with U.S. forces in fighting al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The U.S. military reports that as many as 80,000 Iraqis have joined the Awakening councils. The White House touts these developments as evidence of “winning” the hearts and minds of Iraqis, hence, of success of the “troop surge.” However, it is actually more a consequence of the new policy of arming these selected militias, focusing their disgust on al-Qa’ida, and paying each member 300 dollars per month in the hopes that they can help rein in other insurgents and the terrorists. But what will happen to the members of the Awakening councils when the U.S.-supplied monthly stipends eventually end? Just as easily as they switched from fighting the U.S. occupation to fighting foreign terrorists, they could switch back to battling the occupation or other sections of Iraqi civil society. Over the long term, fuelling the Awakening councils could only

The fact remains that the purported threat of “al-Qa’ida in Iraq” has been vastly exaggerated by the Bush administration. Such al-Qa’ida elements in Iraq are largely independently-founded militias that are inspired by the ideology of Osama bin Laden, but are not necessarily accountable to bin Laden or the al-Qa’ida leadership reportedly based in Pakistan’s mountainous Northwest Frontier Province. Moreover, they collectively comprise a very small fraction of all militias in Iraq.

Most importantly, al-Qa’ida elements in Iraq enjoy virtually no support among the native Iraqi population. While the U.S. government at least talks of stability and democracy, al-Qa’ida has little to offer the Iraqi people other than death and chaos. A survey in 2006 revealed that 94 per cent of Iraqis viewed al-Qa’ida and Osama bin Laden unfavorably, and out of that number 82 per cent were “very unfavorable.” 2 Indications are that in 2007 and 2008 that sentiment against al-Qa’ida has increased still further.

Thus, a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will free Iraqi insurgents opposed to al-Qa'ida to shift from fighting the U.S. occupation to fighting al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups inside Iraq. Recalling that the pre-invasion Iraq was free from terrorist groups, Iraqis left to themselves will root out all remaining terrorist tendencies. Knowing the local society and terrain, they will do it much more effectively than U.S. troops who cannot tell one Middle Easterner from another.

Iran, not the “troop surge,” is more responsible for the reduction in violence in Iraq.

Iran’s security interest in the region is stable and friendly neighbours, secure borders (absence of hostile elements crossing its borders), and removal of hostile elements from its neighbourhood. To achieve this in Iraq, the Iranian government is happy to see a democratically-elected Shi’a-majority government in Baghdad. But Iran remains extremely concerned about the relentless conflict and the U.S. arming Awakening movements, spawning uncontrollable militias that could prevent Iraqis from uniting to rebuild their country. Only an Iraq at peace will cease to be a breeding ground for al-Qaida and other insurgent groups. Only an Iraq at peace can bring some 4.5 million Iraqi refugees home, including tens of thousands in Iran. Only an Iraq at peace can be a viable trading and investment partner with Iran.

In meetings between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad on 6 August 2007, Iranian diplomats demanded that the U.S. take measures to curb the growth of al-Qa’ida and other Sunni militias in Iraq.6 The Iranians have long feared the spread of militant offshoots of Wahabbi Islam originating from Saudi Arabia. Iran has repeatedly asserted its readiness to help stabilize Iraq if the U.S. were to provide a timetable for withdrawing its troops and ending the occupation of Iraq.7

While the Bush administration repeatedly credits the “troop surge” for significantly reducing the level of violence in Iraq over the past year, it is Iran’s new restrictions on the flow of arms and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) into Iraq that has actually had a greater impact. More importantly, continuing Iranian pressure on Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to renew the six-month ceasefire by the Mahdi Army for another six months is perhaps the single most important factor in the overall reduction in attacks on U.S. forces and opposing Iraqi factions.

Iran, for its part, has been playing with various tactics aimed at both reducing violence in Iraq as a way of stabilizing the Shi’a-led Iraqi government as well as appeasing Washington in the hopes of reducing U.S. political pressure against Iran’s uranium enrichment program. So far, the latter appeasement has been largely unsuccessful, but may have played a role in the White House’s decision to release, albeit reluctantly, the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 that admitted that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the autumn of 2003.8

The U.S. occupation divides rather than unites.

The Bush administration talks about setting benchmarks for progress in Iraq, such as national reconciliation. While progress is being made on certain specific benchmarks, such as de-Ba’athification reform, some broader benchmarks are actually becoming harder to reach. U.S. occupation forces have erected concrete walls between Shi'a and Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad and some other cities, despite opposition from residents and the Iraqi government. The ethnic cleansing of formerly mixed urban neighbourhoods, spawned by the occupation itself, has significantly reduced sectarian violence within each walled-off neighbourhood. But at what cost does this come to the fabric of Iraqi society? Urban centers like Baghdad formerly experienced rates of intermarriage as high as 50 per cent. The new civil codes for different communities place significant barriers to intermarriage today. Now a partially partitioned city, Baghdad has ceased to be an integrated metropolis of all Iraqis, but rather a patchwork of enclaves organized by religious community and ethnicity.

The U.S. occupation has spawned a climate of dual extremes from fanatical jihadism to mercenary armies, both effectively exempt from all laws. The jihadists were a desperate response to prolonged and unjustifiable U.S. occupation. The privatization of support operations and force protection through no-bid contracts to contractors like DynCorp, Halliburton, and Blackwater USA, exempt from both Iraqi law and U.S. military law, has contributed significantly to the sense of lawlessness and public resentment against the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Finally, the malicious talk of dividing Iraq by several influential commentators in the U.S. is unhelpful.9 Not only has it drawn sharp criticism from nearly all Arab Iraqis and the Iraqi government, but it works counter-productively against efforts at national reconciliation.

Stabilization by ending the occupation

The way to reduce terrorism is to treat its causes, not battle its symptoms. Terrorism is not a disease, but rather a symptom. The diseases are war, occupation, poverty, inequality, and absence of democratic rights. Terrorism arises when social diseases reach the endpoint of hopelessness and the victims have exhausted all other options for redress of grievances. The victims of such social diseases resort to terrorism as a tactic, not an end in itself, out of desperation and weakness. Thus, global terrorism against Western targets is not a cause, but a consequence of U.S.-sponsored wars, occupations, and bullying.

If the U.S. wants others to behave peacefully, it must become a good citizen in the global community of nations – one among equals. Once the day comes that the U.S. would renounce war, occupation, hegemony, U.S. exceptionality, and extraterritoriality of U.S. law, the world will renounce terrorism. Exceptionality is the doctrine, for example, that the U.S. should be exempt from the International Criminal Court, or that the U.S. can invent a category of “enemy combatants” that are exempt from protections of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1949). Extraterritoriality is the unilateral application of U.S. law, for example, to force other countries and foreign citizens to comply with U.S. embargoes on Cuba and Iran, to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on their sovereign soil, and so on.

On 13 March 2008, General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, faulted Iraqi leaders for failing to make progress towards national reconciliation and provision of basic public services.10 Yet the fact is that the Iraqi government cannot make significant progress on these fronts under a military occupation.

In Iraq every single indicator of violence, instability, resentment, and inability to normalize life in the country is ultimately attributable, directly or indirectly, to the U.S. invasion and occupation. The best way to get out of Iraq is to negotiate a universal ceasefire on the promise of a concrete timetable for withdrawal of all U.S. troops and military bases. There may some transient increases in violence owing to the newly-armed Awakening movements losing their loyalty stipends, and simmering lawlessness as seen in the aftermath of the British troop withdrawal from Basra. While there is always some uncertainty owing to unforeseen undercurrents, Iraqi public opinion and attack statistics strongly suggest that the overall picture will see a reduction in violence by at least 80 per cent in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. That modest uncertainty is far better than “staying the course” whose only certainty is furthering sectarian divisions, loss of life, and resentment against the U.S.


1. Data from the Multi-National Force-Iraq and the Defense Intelligence Agency cited in Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, The Brookings Institution, Washington DC, January 2007, p. 27; and from the MNFI and the Government Accountability Office cited in James Glanz, “Iraq Attacks Stayed Steady Despite Troop Increase, Data Show,” New York Times, 16 May 2007, p. A8.

2. Poll by World Public Opinion cited in The Iraqi Public on the U.S. Presence and the Future of Iraq, World Public Opinion, University of Maryland, Washington DC, 27 September 2006.

3. Public Attitudes in Iraq - May 2007, Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Security Studies, Baghdad, 10 May 2007, p. 1.

4. Public Attitudes in Iraq - March 2007, Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Security Studies, Baghdad, 15 March 2007, p. 4.

5. James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton, The Iraq Study Group Report, Vintage Books, New York, 2006, p. 35.

6. Andrew England and Gareth Smyth, “US and Iran in ‘frank and serious’ talks,” Financial Times, 7 August 2007, p. 4.

7. Roula Khalaf and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, "Iran 'ready to help' US with Iraq stability," Financial Times, 1 October 2007, p. 1. Ned Parker, "Iran's efforts linked to drop in attacks," San Jose Mercury News, 16 November 2007, p. 15A.

8. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, National Intelligence Council, November 2007.

9. Peter W. Galbraith, "The case for dividing Iraq," Time, 13 November 2006, pp. 28-32. Richard Cohen, "Iraq inevitabilities," Washington Post, 25 September 2007, p. A19.

10. Cameron W. Barr, "Petraeus: Iraqi leaders not making 'sufficient progress'," Washington Post, 14 March 2008, p. A10.

Sharat G. Lin writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India, and the environment. He has spent many years in the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and the Arab Gulf countries. He is affiliated with the San Jose Peace and Justice Center.

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