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Iraqi Politicians Push for Withdrawal

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/surge.jpgIraq, Baghdad (army.mil)

A two-member delegation of Iraqi parliamentarians — one Sunni and one Shiite — toured Washington this week with a simple message: withdraw from Iraq. What you leave behind will not be the violence you fear, but rather the peace and unity you claim to seek.

“The anarchy and chaos in Iraq is linked to the presence of the occupation,” said Prof. Nadim al-Jaberi, who belongs to the Shiite Fadhila Party, “not withdrawal from Iraq.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Jaberi’s colleague, Sheikh Khalaf Al-Ulayyan from Anbar Province, a leading member of the Sunni National Dialogue Council. “The U.S. got rid of one person,” he said, referring to Saddam Hussein. “It put in hundreds of persons that are worse than Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, now Iran is going into Iraq, and this is under the umbrella of the United States.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The elected parliamentarians’ primary purpose in coming to the U.S. — a trip arranged by the American Friends Service Committee, a pacifist Quaker organization — was to urge Congress to stop the impending deal between President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for an indefinite U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Details of the deal, leaked to Patrick Cockburn of The Independent in London — and publicly denied by the principal U.S. negotiator, Amb. Ryan Crocker — include control over Iraqi airspace below 29,000 ft., permanent bases for U.S. troops, immunity from Iraqi law and the right to detain Iraqis at U.S. troops’ prerogative. It is the position of the Bush administration that Congress has no say in these negotiations.

A letter signed by 31 Iraqi parliamentarians from across Iraq’s sectarian spectrum and presented to Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, called the deal “unconstitutional and illegal.” The letter’s signatories included Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, who appear to be following Iraqi public opinion. A joint BBC-ABC News poll from September 2007 found nearly 50 percent of Iraqis favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, with barely 30 percent saying the U.S. should remain “until security is restored.”

“[W]e wish to inform you that the majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear mechanisms that obligate the occupying military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq, in accordance with a declared timetable and without leaving behind any military bases, soldiers or hired fighters,” the letter stated. It represents the first attempt at formal legislature-to-legislature communications, undercutting the pro-occupation executives in both Washington and Baghdad.

During a small dinner on Thursday in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, Jaberi claimed the letter was supported by 144 members of Parliament, a slim majority of the 275-seat body. A small majority also backed a legislative effort last year, sponsored by the party of Moqtada Sadr, to compel Washington to set a date for withdrawal.

“I don’t think that any person who loves his country would accept foreign occupiers to stay there for any reason,” Ulayyan said, through a translator at the dinner. “We are not asking to withdraw all U.S. troops overnight, but we ask for a timetable, negotiated, that will put enough time to… ensure there is not a void.”

Both parliamentarians insisted that Iraqis have no problem with the American people — only with the Bush administration. “We know the decision to invade was a political decision taken on behalf of the government,” Ulayyan said as Jaberi nodded next to him. “The American people are not responsible for the decision.”

They also said that the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq seen over the course of the five-year war will dissipate once the Americans leave. “We [haven't] had any social conflict between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq, never,” Jaberi said through translation at the dinner. “It’s a [recent] phenomenon introduced to Iraq lately. It grew under the occupation and will go away when the U.S. goes away. Sunni and Shiites in Iraq live together in the same neighborhoods and intermarry.”

He continued to dispute the other rationales typically given for an extended U.S. occupation. “They say if the foreign troops withdraw, Al Qaeda will take over and there will be anarchy and chaos,” Jaberi said. “I give you a historical fact: Al Qaeda never had any presence in Iraq before the occupation. It came under cover of the calls for liberation. So whenever the foreign forces withdraw from Iraq, these reasons cannot be used as a justification for violence.

“But keeping occupying forces in Iraq,” Jaberi added, “is a very good tool for the recruitment of extremist forces in Iraq.”

That message directly contradicts the position of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in March, McCain said that “if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people,” it would “consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide.” McCain has indicated that he will make his position on Iraq a central aspect of his case against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Both Ulayyan and Jaberi denounced the Maliki government as beholden to Bush, but stopped short of advocating parliamentary measures to oust the premier ahead of a prospective long-term-occupation accord. “There is a fear that if we took down the current government, Iraq would deteriorate more and we do not know who will fill the void,” Ulayyan said.

The American Friends Service Committee brought the two Iraqis to the U.S. and arranged their meetings with U.S. legislators, policy experts and journalists. Its policy director, Aura Kanegis, said the antiwar organization felt the U.S. debate over Iraq suffered from a lack of Iraqi voices. “The delegation has started new conversations on Capitol Hill about our nation’s Iraq policy,” Kanegis asserted in a prepared statement. “Key aspects of the political conflict in Iraq have been largely misunderstood here in the U.S., feeding uninformed assumptions about the U.S. role there. This type of face-to-face diplomacy is essential to finding a clearer path forward for U.S. policy.”

Some policy analysts who met with the two parliamentarians considered them credible, if predictable. “I found the Iraqi parliamentarians interesting but pretty much a charicture of what you’d expect by two representatives who are coming out on the wrong side of U.S. And Maliki government policies,” Ilan Goldenberg, director of the liberal National Security Network, said in an email. “Although, it’s pretty interesting that everything in Iraq is breaking down into two central coalitions. The centralizers (Sadr, the Sunnis of which these guys are representative) and the decentalizers (ISCI and the Kurds).” ISCI is the acronym for the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is supported by both the U.S. and Iran.

Another policy expert said it was unclear how much actual support the men had in Iraq. “Both represent an Iraqi nationalist line, from the vantage point of a parliamentary minority which believes that they represent the will of the Iraqi people who are poorly represented by the sectarian results produced by the 2005 electoral system,” said Marc Lynch, an Arabic-speaking professor of political science at George Washington University who met with the parliamentarians on Wednesday. “Popular dissatisfaction with that system is widespread, though there’s no way to know if they actually command wider support. They do appear to tap into some sectors of popular opinion — you can hear similar discourse coming from the tribes and the Awakenings — but nobody has really been able to translate that into effective political action.”

At the Wednesday dinner, some pressed the two parliamentarians on whether post-occupation reconciliation would be as easy as they portrayed it. “The conflict between Sunni and Shiite is unexpected, and not with deep roots in Iraqi society,” Jaberi responded. “There are some political leaders who play this card out of their own interest, and who tried to turn sectarian conflict [worse] after the explosions in Samarra [in 2006]. Tempers rose, but then they calmed down. What matters now is the popular base, which protests [sectarianism]. Most Iraqis do not like to be presented as Sunni or Shiite.”

Jaberi and Ulayyan appear to be working toward this goal directly. Lynch translated a recent report from the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat that quoted a Sadrist parliamentary leader saying his group will soon announce a new coalition that will include Jaberi’s Shiite Fadhila Party and Ulayyan’s Sunni National Dialogue Council, along with at least three other factions.

Their opposition to the permanent-occupation deal may be yielding results. The Washington Post reported Friday that the Maliki government may request an extension of the U.N. mandate for keeping foreign troops in Iraq, rather than push through an unpopular deal with the lame-duck Bush administration.

Staffers for Delahunt, whose subcommittee hosted the parliamentarians on Wednesday, said that they hoped to deepen ties between Congress and the Iraqi Parliament. The feeling appeared to be mutual. “My major message for the American people is this,” Ulayyan said at the dinner. “We respect and thank all those who demonstrated against the war and protested the war and took the side of the Iraqi people.”

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