The deal with the USA approved by the Iraqi parliament at the end of November is entitled "Agreement On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq".
And that is what it is - though it cannot be relied on, and there are a dozen reasons why it may go wrong.
It is a big shift. Back in June the USA, in negotiations with the Baghdad government, was demanding:
- Complete freedom of movement in Iraq for the US military;
- Powers to launch military operations without seeking Iraqi government permission;
- Control over Iraqi air space;
- Authority to arrest and detain Iraqis without reference to Iraqi courts;
- Immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for American troops, contractors and corporations in Iraq;
- And 58 long-term bases in the country.
The USA offered no promise to defend Iraq from outside attack or to defend democratic institutions in Iraq.
Now the USA has promised:
- US combat forces will withdraw from cities, towns, and villages by 30 June 2009;
- All US forces will withdraw from Iraq by 31 December 2011. (As Leila Fadel of the McClatchy news agency points out, "President-elect Barack Obama's campaign plan to leave a residual force of some 30,000 American troops in Iraq would be impossible under the pact").
And immediately on the agreement going into effect:
- All US operations require Iraqi government agreement;
- Baghdad gets control of Iraqi airspace;
- "No detention of arrest may be carried out by the US forces... except through an Iraqi decision issued in accordance with Iraqi law". The US must turn over detainees it currently holds to the Iraqi government, or release them.
- The Iraqi government gets control of the Green Zone;
- The USA pledges itself to "support Iraq to obtain forgiveness of international debt... from.. the former regime" and to get Iraq out of the UN supervision dating from 1990.
Behind the shift since June lies the increased strength and confidence of the Iraqi government. For the first two years after Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister in April 2006 (after five months of haggling, following the December 2005 elections), it "governed" little more than its own meeting room within the US-controlled Green Zone. The US government openly despised it and speculated about trying to find a new parliamentary combination to replace it.
From about August 2007, the sectarian civil war in Iraq which had rumbled on since the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006 simmered down. After long negotiations, the USA had succeeded in splitting some of the Sunni sectarian militias off from Al Qaeda, and reorganising them as US-paid militias (Sahwa). Other militias had reached a stand-off.
Following that, from about the middle of this year the Maliki government has showed signs of "solidifying". It has made only little progress in basic civil administration (water, electricity, etc.), but it has felt confident enough to start making deals with multinationals about Iraq's oil and gas - most recently, a secret deal with Shell which gives a joint venture a virtual monopoly on developing Iraqi gas production.
It has survived (so far) the transfer of the Sahwa militias from the US payroll to Iraqi control, and Arab-Kurdish tensions around Khanaqin and Kirkuk.
The US withdrawal deal has got the support of Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric, and tacit endorsement from Iran. The mainstream Sunni Islamists (though not the Al Qaeda types) backed the deal. The largest force in Iraq to oppose the deal has been the Shia clerical-fascist movement led by Moqtada al-Sadr. The other main Shia-Islamist group outside the government coalition, Fadila, has "abstained", staying away from the parliamentary vote.
Sadr can hope to build on a strong fund of popular distrust of the government and of the USA - a poll suggests 35% of Iraqis opposing the deal, with 46% supporting. But his oppposition to the deal is tactical, and the deal is likely to give the government parties a political boost for the provincial elections due in Iraq in January.
The deal is still not to be trusted. The Maliki government may well trip up through over-confidence, and plunge Iraq back into outright civil war. There is plausible talk of secret side-deals.
The USA is not happy with the prospect of a pro-Iranian government stabilising in Baghdad, and may look out for chances over the next three years of toppling the government and replacing it by the rule of some suitably US-trained Iraqi generals.
The deal requires the US to "take appropriate measures... diplomatic, economic, or military, to deter... any external or internal threat [to Iraq's] democratic system or its elected institutions". If it comes to it, the USA will find ways to flout such requirements. But for now the USA is in retreat.
That Iraq has acquired a government with enough confidence and political weight to demand Iraqi self-determination is good. That this particular government has acquired that weight is bad.
It is a government dominated by pro-Iranian Shia clerical-fascist parties. It keeps Saddam Hussein's 1987 anti-union law on the books, as well as Decree 8750 from 2005, giving it powers to seize all union funds at any time. As the government feels stronger against the USA, it is also likely to feel stronger against the Iraqi labour movement.
The Iraqi labour movement, long hard-pressed, has been more active in recent months. Socialists internationally should focus our efforts on supporting that labour movement, including against the threat from the stronger Maliki government.
Self-determination for Iraq can only be a botched affair unless it is secular (Shia and Sunni cannot be united under a clericalist regime) and democratic (so that it is the people who have self-determination, not just a clique acting in their name).
The left's debates in the light of the new agreement
What are the implications of these developments for the debates on the left (including within the AWL) over the last five years? The AWL majority has argued for a focus on solidarity with the Iraqi labour movement against both the US/UK occupation and the sectarian militias, and we have been reproached by other left groups, and by some inside the AWL, for not raising (instead, or in addition) the slogans "Troops Out" or "Troops Out Now".
We objected that to move from our stated opposition to the US military to the specific "call to action", "troops out now", would be to "demand" the tipping of Iraq into all-out sectarian civil war between rival clerical-fascist militias. Lenin and Trotsky argued against German revolutionaries raising the "call to action" "Down with the Versailles Treaty" (because it meant war), yet still opposed the Versailles Treaty as well as the drive to war: why couldn't we employ the same logic?
Even today, almost certainly an overnight US withdrawal would tip Iraq into a fight-out between the militias. To oppose the US military is one thing: to "call on" the USA that it withdraw from Iraq in such a way as to maximise the risk of destruction of the labour movement is another.
How do these arguments stand now? Even in cases of straightforward colonial war, once a deal like this for withdrawal had been signed, socialists would switch focus from "Troops Out Now" towards the tasks of working-class and democratic struggle against the likely new regime. They would not positively demand that the colonial power withdraw with maximum abruptness, as France did from Guinea in October 1958, with punitive intention and destructive effect.
When the British government signed the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland in 1998, paving the way for British troops to return to barracks in 2007 after 38 years on the streets, some of us - the majority in the AWL eventually, after some argument - argued that socialists should not endorse or vote for the Agreement. The Socialist Party advocated a vote to endorse the Agreement; the SWP was evasive as always. No-one on the left responded to the Agreement by counterposing "Troops Out Now".
It would be equally senseless to counterpose "Troops Out Now" to the US-Maliki deal. And in fact Socialist Worker has pointedly refrained from "Troops Out Now". It agrees that the plan shows the US as in retreat. But:
- SW explains it all as a result of "the Iraqi rebellion" and "huge anger" (SW's catch-all description for pretty much everything, from 9/11 to grumbles in the works canteen). Actually the deal is a result of the Iraqi government acquiring a tad of solidity and managing to damp down "the rebellion" (i.e. the sectarian ultras).
- It claims that the deal "grants the US some permanent military bases". In fact the deal requires the US to withdraw all troops and to hand all "facilities" over to the Iraqi government. The USA may find ways round those clauses, but that is what the deal says.
The main arguments over the last five years for advancing the "Troops Out" slogan have been:
- The US presence in Iraq is in fact a colonial occupation. The choices are either Troops Out or US rule over Iraq for the indefinite future. Even if Troops Out would mean civil war in the short term, it is the only demand allowing a free development of Iraqi politics.
- All-out civil war is as certain to come with a continued US presence as with a sudden withdrawal. (Or, sometimes: all-out civil war had already come. Whatever the results of sudden withdrawal, they could not be worse than the status quo).
The fact that this withdrawal deal has come from the Iraqi "resistance" subsiding rather than increasing indicates that the "colonialism" argument was false. It also indicates that if agitation like that of the SWP over the last five years had made any difference in Iraq, it would have been in the direction of making it more difficult and longer to get the US troops out.
Neither the US government, nor the Maliki government, nor the deal between them, is to be trusted. Bad things are to be expected from the Maliki government. But it is not certain or even probable that they will be as bad as all-out sectarian civil war.
It would be wrong to endorse the apparent "lesser evil" of the Maliki-US deal; but even more wrong positively to demand the greater evil.