What is the US up to in Iraq?

While the Sadrists want the end of the occupation, Washington would be happy to settle for a client state.

US soliders in Iraq
Muqtada al-Sadr has laid out three demands with the help of a massive demonstration [EPA]

Imagine Dick Cheney’s reaction when confronted with this bit of information.

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a certified Iraqi nationalist leader and the country’s de facto kingmaker, has just called for the end of any “armed resistance” against US “invader” forces before a full US withdrawal in December 2011 – as established by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by the Iraqi parliament and the Bush administration in late 2008.

There’s an important “but”: If the US does not completely withdraw, and if what is widely regarded by a majority of Iraqis as “the occupation” continues, armed operations will resume “with new means”.

Muqtada has always stressed the Sadrists wouldn’t tolerate US troops after December 21; what’s new is the “wait and see” attitude.

To make things clear, the Sadrists unleashed a huge demonstration in Baghdad on Friday, pressing three demands:

The Nouri al-Maliki government should pull an Obama and immediate set up a jobs programme that will benefit at least 50,000 Iraqis from all ethnic and religious affiliations.

Social justice
The al-Maliki government should transfer royalties from the country’s fabulous oil profits to each Iraqi citizen.

No US troops whatsoever in Iraqi soil after December 31.

The Sadrists hold 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Without them, al-Maliki’s coalition government is toast. Al-Maliki himself is in power only because of a deal brokered by Tehran with the Sadrists.  

Not only can al-Maliki not afford to ignore the Sadrists; the Iraqi constitution rules that parliament may call for a vote of no confidence if 50 members are in favour. The man who al-Maliki eventually defeated after the most recent elections, former CIA asset and former “butcher of Fallujah” Iyad Allawi, has been calling for such a vote.

Enter the 3,000

Oblivious to Sadrist demands – not to mention Iraqi nationalists or Sunni fundamentalists – US President Barack Obama won a mini-battle against the Pentagon and unilaterally decided to keep “only” 3,000 US troops after December 31, trampling over any decision by the Iraqi prime minister or the Iraqi parliament.

This came as the US State Department became engaged in what was officially described as “formal negotiations” to convince al-Maliki to allow these now famous 3,000.

The Pentagon, as well as hawkish US senators such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham, wanted at least 25,000.

It’s as if Washington was betting en masse on Iraqi political players singing something like Oh won’t you pleeeeease … occupy me a little bit longer.

Al-Maliki has stated countless times on the record that this SOFA is non-negotiable – and cannot be amended. A new SOFA would have to be negotiated and approved by the Iraqi parliament.

Saudi Arabia and the GCC monarchies – consumed by an irrational fear of Tehran – reason that if US troops stay they will keep the Iranian regime in check. But Saudis don’t vote in Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurds – who basically want to be left alone in their virtually independent statelet – may want a new SOFA. And so would much of the Sunni-majority Iraqiya list. But together they could never muster 163 votes to approve it in the Iraqi parliament.

So Washington’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, it won’t happen.

That opens the way to Washington’s plan B; a semantic game.

In pure neo-newspeak, US troops start to be called “trainers” – as in training Iraqis to man the fighters and helicopters al-Maliki’s government recently bought from the US industrial-military complex.  

And then there will be up to 7,000 “private military contractors”, aka mercenaries, to provide “security” for the bigger-than-the-Vatican US Embassy, aka Fortress Baghdad, as well as extra, assorted contractors.

“Situational awareness”, anyone?

Regional influences

Washington’s game doesn’t fare so well when compared with those of Tehran and Ankara, even under the light of a lethal Shia-Sunni divide across the Middle East – the fires of which have been largely stoked by the House of Saud.

It was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that totally smashed a Sunni-controlled, secular, Arab nationalist regime; in its wake sprang up a less secular, less nationalist government controlled by Shia. They are not Khomeinists by any measure; but many did live in exile in Iran, and want to keep very good relations with Tehran.

Al-Maliki’s government wouldn’t exactly like the majority Sunni protesters in Syria toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is based on Alawite folk Shia. 

Moreover, Iraqi Shia have been deeply touched by the plight of the Shia majority in Bahrain, which has been heavily repressed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty with crucial help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Yet the argument that Iraq is “weak” or “fragile” because of its sectarian and ethnic divisions is a sham. It was the US occupation, from the beginning, that stoked these divisions as a classic “divide and rule” tactic. A majority of Iraqi Arabs, Sunni or Shia, can easily unite under a nationalist cause, such as repelling the occupation.

No matter the number of troops, “trainers” or mercenaries the US gets away with on the ground in Iraq, it’s unlikely the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis will unravel anytime soon.

And this, while in their times of trouble, Iraqis would rather look to Ankara as a model than Washington.

The US, anyway, won’t give up. The bet is on a mix of old school – swarms of CIA operatives based at the US embassy – and new school – a swarm of paramilitary mercenaries.

From Washington’s point of view, the road map is here: It includes as many as 17,000 people managed by the State Department providing “situational awareness”, able to “manage political crises” and “delivering economic, development and security assistance”.

Further road maps can be found here, which detail the State Department overseeing “a planned $6.8 billion operation”, which can be translated as: without any oil grabbing, the occupation will only pay off if Iraq becomes a client regime.

So these are the facts on the ground. Muqtada al-Sadr against Hillary Clinton. Quite a catfight. Any bets?

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.