Word over the weekend that Iraq is brokering an arms deal with China is good news if you are pulling for Iraq to exercise sovereignty. Of course the back story to the Chinese arms deal is more bad news. In essence, the Shia government distrusts what the United States is doing among the Sunni tribes in Anbar and wants weapons for Shia militia and police to protect Shia communities from the former allies of Saddam Hussein.
The question of sovereignty raised by the purchase of Chinese AK-47s is but the beginning of determining whether Iraq’s Shia will stand up so we can stand down and whether we really mean what we say. The reality on the ground continues to highlight the impotence of the Maliki government and the proconsul might wielded by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Sure we try to maintain the fiction that there is a functioning government in Baghdad that is under Iraqi control, but when push comes to shove we are winning the pushing and shoving contests.
Consider first the reality and then entertain what Iraq would look like if Maliki, through some miracle, manages to flex his own sovereign power.
US military forces occupy dozens of military bases throughout Iraq and will only relinquish control of those bases when we decide. Iraq has no ability to push us out of those encampments.Reality:
We conduct military operations throughout Iraq without seeking the permission of the Iraqi government. We capture Iranian diplomats and businessmen who legally entered Iraq and are holding them prisoner. We attack houses and, while not intending to, kill civilians just as Blackwater did without worrying about being arrested or detained for our actions. We take whom we want, when we want, and lock them up. We do not need a warrant. There is no habeus corpus. There is no right to be confronted by one’s accuser (if there is an accuser).Reality:
The U.S. State Department, through the good offices of Ambassador Crocker, calls the shots with respect to Blackwater and other security contractors employed to protect official U.S. persons. If the Russians want to hire security guards to protect their diplomats in Washington, D.C., those guards will be from a company licensed to operate in Washington, D.C. and, unless they are attached to a local or federal law enforcement agency, they cannot carry weapons. And if they shoot somebody, the responsible guard is headed to jail unless the victim was armed and attacking. Well, thems ain’t the rules of engagement in Iraq. Blackwater does not need a visa to enter Iraq. It does not need Iraqi permission to carry weapons. It does not need Iraqi permission to fire weapons. And even after Blackwater has killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians, it continues to operate freely. And who is responsible for reining in the Blackwater mercs? Us.
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Got the picture? It ain’t pretty and it is the kind of relationship likely to breed resentment and animosity. Americans love to wax nostalgic about our nifty troop deployments in Korea and Germany, but we have forgotten, seemingly, what happened when the Filipinos and Panamanians closed our bases in those countries and showed us the door. Well actually, nothing much bad happened for those societies. It just put the United States in a different relationship with those countries and knocked our imperial ambitions down a couple of notches.
We must come to grips with a contradiction. At present our leaders are agitating for a new war with Iran. Yet the majority parties in Iraq – especially ones that control the militias – are closely aligned with Iran. If the Shia dominated Iraqi government flexes its political muscle and insists on exercising full sovereignty in the coming months then it will be more difficult to confront Iran without also alienating Iraq and putting that relationship at risk. Conversely, helping the Shia consolidate their base in Iraq will ultimately strengthen Iran’s position in the region.
My guess is that Iraqis – both Shia and Sunni – are ready to have it their way. And it is highly likely that the Shia and Sunni will escalate their sectarian war once we are out of the way. But the Shia hold the major trump cards. They have the oil, the seaports, the roads to Kuwait, and the backing of Iran. They also are consolidating their control of Baghdad and continuing to expel Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods.
As the nonsense about the “surge” subsides in the coming months – especially as U.S. and British troops continue to drawdown – the question of how to accept a sovereign Iraq will become more pressing. The answer to that question will play a major role in defining the influence the United States will exercise in the Middle East in the next decade. It is not a pretty picture.
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