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US Troop Reduction in Iraq All for Show

28 March 2008

US Troop Reduction in Iraq All for Show

It was five years ago that the Americans and British invaded Iraq. The US policy has been conducted with growing support from the Netherlands. Given the results, a change of course is urgently needed, in the opinion of Harry van Bommel, MP.

Harry van Bommelby Harry van Bommel, Foreign Affairs spokesman for the SP

Let's first of all refute a few myths regarding the American approach in Iraq. The first myth is that the American invasion means that the Iraqis now have things a little better than they did before the war. This is demonstrably not the case. The living conditions of the general population are, according to a report from the Red Cross which has just appeared, wretched. Millions of Iraqis have inadequate access to purified water, sanitary provisions and health care. At least 2.4 million have fled the country and another 1.4 million remain uprooted in other parts of their homeland. Hundreds of thousands have died since the invasion, victims of the continuing war.

The second myth concerns the military success of the surge. This temporary major increase in the levels of American troops was supposed to lead to improved security. In fact the American military have had little influence on relations within Iraq.

Of far greater importance was the buying off and arming of a section of the Sunni guerrilla forces in the north in exchange for their giving up the fight against the American occupiers. These actions placed a bomb under any possibility of a political solution in Iraq, creating a rival to the Shi'ite dominated state power, sowing the seeds of a renewed civil war. The presence of the Americans has also not led to the current state of relative calm in Baghdad. A much more important reason for this is the cease-fire called months ago by the Shi'ite leader Muktada Al Sadr. Another is the bitter fact that large parts of Baghdad have been ethnically cleansed of non-Shi'ites: deaths have fallen because most of the people have been chased away. Patrick Cockburn, an American journalist who has been in Iraq for many years, described the alleged success of the last year as a "false perception".

'Pause'

The third myth is the idea that the Americans want to get out of Iraq. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, and General Petraeus, commander of the American troops in Iraq, have actually retreated from their earlier position that a withdrawal of the US army is necessary.

In April General Petraeus will present his report on the situation to the US Congress. In it, he will argue that the proposed reduction in troop numbers should not go through but that instead the 'surge' be replaced by a 'pause'. The actual practise of the US in Iraq points to what Secretary Gates has said will be a stay of extremely long duration. Experts estimate that this will involve a garrison at least 80,000 strong, accommodated in a complex of permanent and fully-equipped bases.

The Americans are in negotiation with the Iraqi government on a treaty in which the terms of their remaining would be laid down. This treaty, known as a "status of forces agreement" is needed to replace the UN mandate for the American presence. In the US Congress a minority of representatives critical of the war or its conduct have tried but not once succeeded in forcing any of this out into the open. Withdrawal from Iraq is a sensitive issue in this election year, because a majority of the electorate is known to want just that. Yet not a single mainstream candidate has spoken of complete withdrawal and no deadlines have been set. As things stand a significant number of functions of the American army of occupation have been transferred to other bases in the Gulf. This means that in this presidential election year the appearance of troop reduction is being maintained for the benefit of the US electorate while in reality the American presence is being made permanent. The US embassy complex in Baghdad is the world's biggest. Given these realities it is no wonder that 70% of Iraqis responded to a survey in early March by saying that they wanted foreign troops to leave their country. In this they were demonstrating the failure of the military solution for Iraq. Recognition of this, including by the Netherlands, is needed in order to make possible an alternative approach.

The emphasis of any such policy should be on negotiations between the most significant groups within Iraq, possibly in agreement with the governments of bordering countries. Iraqi government must be strengthened in order to give the civilian population the chance for a better future. But each step in the negotiation process between directly involved groups must be preceded by an unambiguous declaration from the Americans that they will withdraw - in the short term and completely. The Netherlands has given limited military support and, from the beginning, political support to the American agenda. It is now time to join other countries in persuade our biggest NATO ally to change its ideas.

This article first appeared in the regional daily newspaper, Het Friesch Dagblad, 22 March 2008

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