By Priya Satia
Published: July 1 2009 20:03 | Last updated: July 1 2009 20:03
We are at the beginning of the end. On Tuesday, US troops left Iraq’s cities, and in two years they will leave the country. Or so the official story goes. In reality, most of the “withdrawing” forces are merely relocating to forward operating bases where they appear to be hunkering down for a long entr’acte offstage in expensive, built-to-last facilities.
Still, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, is touting this redistribution of American power as a “great victory” against foreign occupation, akin to the Iraqi rebellion against the British in 1920. The US media appear bemused at the comparison, as they continue to miss the point of the Iraqi insurgency. But Mr al-Maliki is more right than he knows about the historical echo: 1920 turned out to be a sad year for Iraq, as the brutal British suppression of that uprising inaugurated four decades of British rule, lasting until the 1958 Iraqi revolution.
Today, too, victory is tinged with fraud. And the Fallujah bombers – the “patriotic resistance” – know it. Mr al-Maliki may claim US participation in maintaining public order is “finished”, but everyone knows public order depends on Iraqi awareness of the offstage presence of US troops.
US operations will be suspended for a few days to promote the perception that Iraqi forces are actually in control; Ali al-Adeeb, a senior leader of Mr al-Maliki’s Dawa party, says the Americans will become “invisible”.
But Iraqis are too shrewd to fall for invisible occupation again; indeed, they never fell for it the first time. Tuesday’s withdrawals echo the cynical British grant of “independence” in 1932 more than Mr al-Maliki’s selective memory of 1920. Then, too, the foreign occupiers co-operated in the local government’s efforts to create an impression of sovereignty, while continuing to pull the strings of real authority behind the scenes. Then, too, Iraqis saw through the ruse. The celebrations of 1932 rang hollow as British aircraft continued to patrol overhead and British personnel were renamed advisors, trainers, liaisons – “the same individuals with new and supposedly thicker cloaks”, one British official confessed. Today, too, the thousands of troops that will remain in Iraq will be restyled as “trainers” and “advisers”; American aircraft will retain their free hand. Moreover, the Iraqi and US governments’ focus on appearances has increased their need for secrecy about the true number and nature of the withdrawals, compounding suspicions of foul play.
Iraqis worry equally about the loyalty of Iraqi security forces, who will remain under the sway of thousands of embedded US “trainers”. Their takeover of the violent security work of the former occupiers also renders them suspect.
In sermons last week, Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric, warned of American loyalists in the military and government. Echoing 1920s and 1930s speculation that violence was the result of British machinations, he blames recent explosions on an American conspiracy to justify the US presence. His sermons inspired marches in Sadr City with shouts of, “No, no to America. No, no to occupation. No, no to terrorism. Yes for independence”. The current withdrawals are not seen as a step toward independence but to more covert and thus even more unaccountably violent American control – like the post-1932 British period.
American officials should heed the cautionary tale of the past, unwittingly invoked by Mr al-Maliki’s bluster. As the British ambassador in “independent” Iraq realised too late, Iraqis “never swallowed the fiction that [the advisers] are maintained as much, more even, for their good than for ours”. Independence remained a mirage as British trainers refused to entrust critical elements of Iraqi security to their trainees for fear of compromising British security. Security itself remained a pipe dream. As the isolated trainers grew increasingly susceptible to a paranoid groupthink about Iraqi politics, it became impossible for them to accept real withdrawal. The fortifications that protect US trainers from their trainees threaten to create a similar bubble.
In 1932 as now, rhetoric about withdrawal was aimed at global as much as Iraqi opinion. Instead of attending only to appearances, stoking the fears of a people familiar with nominal independence, the US and Iraqi governments should deliver the reality Iraqis and Americans want: “Yes for independence.”
The writer is assistant professor of history at Stanford University and author of Spies in Arabia
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009