Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.
With all 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq scheduled to withdraw by December 31, the White House and Pentagon have issued contradictory statements on whether the United States will seek to keep a force of several thousand troops in the country for training Iraqi security forces. With U.S. officials insisting that any remaining troops must be granted continued immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, and Iraqi lawmakers refusing to grant such immunity, a senior State Department official announced Saturday that the United States would terminate efforts to extend its presence and withdraw as planned at the end of the year. But on Monday, in an apparent departure from these statements, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he was hopeful an agreement could still be reached allowing U.S. troops to remain in 2012. Since Panetta, on his first visit to Iraq as Secretary of Defense, complained of the supposed indecision of the Iraqi government on the question of an extended American presence, news reports on the U.S.-Iraqi timetable negotiations has focused on the dithering of Iraqi lawmakers (a recent AP article said that “Iraqi lawmakers excel at last-minute agreements;” Panetta actually said of the Iraqi government, “Dammit, make a decision”). But what are the real issues at stake as the Pentagon continues to press for an agreement?
First, while U.S. officials and lawmakers have for months floated numbers of how many troops might stay beyond the year’s end, it was never a foregone conclusion that a substantial U.S. troop presence would remain in Iraq into 2012. In fact, such debates are moot without the permission of the Iraqi government, which must approve any changes to the withdrawal deadline established in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. While arguments for retaining U.S. troops on the ground have, predictably, focused on security and the need to preserve hard-won gains against insurgents, the influential cleric Moktada al-Sadr has threatened that attacks against U.S. troops—to which he has ordered a halt so as not to slow the withdrawal—will resume again “in a new and tougher way” if the withdrawal is not completed. Second, while U.S. military officials have attempted to portray the issue of immunity as an uncontroversial one—a commander at Fort Bliss said of the issue, “We shouldn’t see American soldiers in Iraqi courts on trumped-up charges”—Iraqi reluctance to grant continued immunity for U.S. troops stems from a growing body of evidence that the U.S. military has covered up serious crimes committed by its forces in Iraq. The Iraqi government has launched an investigation into a 2006 incident after WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable alleging that Iraqi civilians had been shot in the head by U.S. troops, rather than killed in an airstrike as the military reported. Finally, lengthy, high-profile debates about the timetable of troop withdrawals often divert attention away from the ways in which political and economic occupation are being established for the long haul. If an agreement about legal immunity is not reached with the Iraqi Parliament, the United States may still attempt to keep troops in Iraq under the auspices of NATO. Moreover, the U.S. diplomatic presence and influence in Iraq will continue to be substantial, and, as Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress told The Nation last month, fewer troops may only mean more private security contractors protecting State Department staff. Regardless of whether troops remain beyond 2011 to train Iraqi security forces, Iraq will probably continue to host CIA staff, approximately 160 embassy guards, and some portion of the nearly 53,000 private contractors working for the Department of Defense in Iraq as of October 2011. The fact that the Iraq War, now eight years old, represents a new, privatized form of warfare is often absent from the troop withdrawal debates over troop withdrawal. It ought to figure centrally into any conversation about truly ending the occupation.