Obama in Iraq: Walking on Fire

by Ewa Jasiewicz

Red Pepper blog on Obama 'Change we can believe in?'

Saturday, November 1, 2008


So the count-down begins. ‘Blessed Good Boy’, the literal Arabic translation of ‘Barak Hussein’ Obama is inspiring working class, and his key demographic ‘the middle class’, voters with his big-tent unity politics. He may be calling for social change from below, but what effect would an Obama presidency have on ordinary Iraqis? To understand Obama’s policy on Iraq, we need to take a closer look at his right hand man – running partner and potential future President of the United States, Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

Obama may have voted against the Iraq war but Joe Biden was for it. A proponent of liberal military interventionism, post-invasion, Biden has been critical of the conduct of the occupation administration and the civil war it created.

A Blueprint for Break-Up

The solution he proposed in 2006, however, represents no departure from what many saw as a key tennet of the original plan of the invasion and occupation: partition of Iraq into three separate statelets, governed by US-friendly, installed elites, in order for the country to be pacified and provide an uninterrupted supply of oil and gas under longterm contracts with Western companies.

The Oil Law and the long-term deals it allows for reflects a militarised neo-conservative energy security strategy to re-fuel faltering US oil companies and promote their competitive advantage ahead of rival emergent (China and India) and hostile (Iran) economies.

Biden drew up the ‘soft partition’ plan with Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. It called for a division of Iraq along sectarian identity lines of ‘Sunni’, ‘Kurd’ and ‘Shia’ which would be loosely administered by a central government.

Biden and Gelb’s Op-Ed in the New York Times was published on May Day 2006. Despite the day being one of working class celebration, the implications of the plan could not be worse for working class Iraqis.

The top-down social and cultural engineering Biden and Obama support in Iraq directly contradicts the aims of grassroots empowerment that Obama’s campaign claims in the US.

Iraq is Not Bosnia

Biden and Gelb wrote: ‘The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group - Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab - room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests’.

But Bosnia is not Iraq. The reputation and relationships between UK and US elites and their counterparts in Iraq, compounded by the historical violence inflicted upon the country, vary wildly in comparison to Bosnia.

The US and UK-backed partition of Bosnia was a painful and contested process, yet the historical agency of the UK and US in strategically stoking conflict in Iraq and the injustices committed there, from the artificial creation of the country to the serious war crimes committed there, are incomparable.

The intermittent occupation of Iraq since 1920 by the British, the social engineering through the installation of puppet regimes such as that of King Faisal in the 20s, the militarised oil plunder, the active support for Saddam Hussein, the war games of attrition with Iran, ‘genocidal’ sanctions (as they have been described by UN official Denis Haliday) which killed a million Iraqis, and responsibility for the deaths of over a million Iraqis through this ongoing gulf war alone arguably make the country a far more manipulated, militarised and traumatised place.

Add 115bn barrels of oil to the fire, and its role as a strategic commodity and bedrock fuel of an increasingly militarised free-market capitalism, and the results are socially, politically and ecologically incendiary.

Biden and Gelb went on to say of their partition plan: ‘We could drive this in place with irresistible sweeteners for the Sunnis to join in, a plan designed by the military for withdrawing and redeploying American forces, and a regional nonaggression pact.’

Irresistible sweeteners? Sunnis, a religious identity co-existant within and with Iraqis alongside other ethnic, class, religious and cultural identities, is concentrated in, but not exclusive to, the western and central regions of Iraq.

The occupation invasions of Fallujah in April and November 2004 saw over 200,000 residents flee their homes, entire neighbourhoods levelled to the ground, the use of white phosphorous and cluster bombs, and over 6000 people killed.

Bodies were buried in back gardens and the town’s football stadium. Fallujah, like many other majority Sunni towns was laid siege to by US troops who operated retina scan ID checks, refused non-residents entry, searched and occupied homes and regularly killed civilians at checkpoints.

Oil for Pacification

What ‘sweeteners’ could a plan for division and de facto cantonisation orchestrated in Washington bring to those still grieving, and those still fighting? Already blast-walls have been built between communities and around those defined as ‘security threats’. These new concrete facts on the ground fuelled by politically engineered sectarianism have created the conditions for cantonised communties, territorial subdivisions based on religious sectarian identity that could irreparably change the social map of Iraq.

The ‘sweeteners’ to create these new facts on the ground are capital and power. The powers for appointed elites to sign their own deals with oil companies and take a cut from the sales and eliminate any resistance that stands in their way.

The Iraqi Oil Law – written in July 2006 and re-drafted with the ‘advice’ of nine multinational oil companies, the US and UK authorities and the IMF - was always misrepresented by Washington as a ‘revenue sharing law’. Infact only one of its 46 articles deals with revenue sharing; its primary aim is to sanction Production Sharing Agreements – privatisation deals – and create a Federal Oil and Gas Council made up of regional political elites empowered to have the final say on signings.

An actual oil revenue sharing law was passed this year along with another bundle of laws on the reformation of the Iraq national oil company and Ministry of Oil.

Revenue sharing has never been an issue of contention between regions. The authority to decide how and with whom and on what terms Iraq’s resources are developed and controlled is the issue. This is why the law remains off Iraq’s statute books two years later, despite being Bush’s number one ‘benchmark’, and surpassing over five deadlines set by Washington.

The Oil Law is more than just a document determining investment conditions and contracts for foreign oil companies. It is also a political blueprint for federalising economic decision-making. With oil sales accounting for approximately 95% of government revenue, oil is the economy. The Law would allow regions to pass their own oil laws, run their own industries and sign their own contracts with international oil companies without any democratic oversight.

Biden’s states: ‘Each group would have an incentive to maximize oil production, making oil the glue that binds the country together’, risking entrenching an oil export-lead economy in Iraq for the longterm and rendering the country exposed to price-shocks and fluctuations in demand.

‘Sweet Injustice’

Biden’s definition of ‘Sweeteners’ also coheres with the Republican plan for incentivising factions to put down the armed resistance by parcelling out oil control to the regions. The Oil Law is such a ‘sweetner’, creating ‘shared stability interest among stakeholders Iraq-wide’, according to President of the American Chamber of Commerce and former Vice President of the Republican National Lawyers, Timothy B Mills.

The Law as a model can also act as ‘a parting gift’ of ‘oil for peace’ according to former Vice President of Policy at BP, Nick Butler. Oil control for social control.

Timothy B Mills, who represented the Bush-Cheney campaign during the disputed Florida votes in 2000, is also an army Colonel reservist. Mills articulated his ‘oil for social peace’ politics in a piece written for an Iraq petroleum summit held in Dubai last year.

Titled 'High Risk Opportunities? Practical Challenges and Solutions to doing business in Iraq Circa 2007', Mills explores the security advantages if the Oil Law’s provision for regional signings comes into force:
‘Each political and social faction would share a strong interest in quelling the unrest that has persisted for the better part of the past four years. Continuing unrest in the country would keep international oil companies and the accompanying billions of dollars of investment from coming in, and thus, would frustrate the aspirations of all. Collective enforcement action, centred on Iraqi means, would follow - quite similar to what is currently transpiring with respect to current counter-insurgency activity undertaken by the tribal sheikhs in Al Anbar governorate’.
This ‘collective enforcement action’ means a substitution of US military occupation force with ‘Iraqi means’, i.e Iraqi military and mercenary forces; an escalating interplay of carrot and stick, most recently visible in the establishment of the ‘Awakening Councils’ in Anbar.

The 75,000 member-strong Awakening Councils are the ‘carrot councils’ which followed the ‘sticks’ of massacre in late 2005. The concept of paid-off, al’qeda-resisting, Sunni allies had long been part of the US’s agenda to break resistance directed towards the occupation. The Awakening Councils, conceived by US occupation strategists in Baghdad and Tribal leaders in Anbar province, represented the turn towards US protection and alliance that Washington had been looking for.

The Councils are fast becoming a political force to be reckoned with. According to Iraq commentator Juan Cole, ‘The Iraqi Islamic Party and its fundamentalist allies have 44 seats in Parliament and control several Sunni-majority provinces, yet the IIP fears that the Awakening Councils as a political force will displace it in the upcoming provincial elections.’

Empowering Elites

The Oil Law’s devolution provisions would also economically empower the aspirations of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. SIIC, formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is a Shiite party with an occupation-legalised militia and has been the most co-operative political and military force with the occupation since 2003.

Last year Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a Shi‘i preacher affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq declared his party’s intentions to form a 9-region super-state in the south of Iraq. He told Christian Science Monitor journalist Sam Dagher that ‘a massive operation’ was underway to secure the establishment of a Shi‘i super-province in Iraq, to be named the ‘South of Baghdad Region’.

Sadirist, secular, Yazidi, Turkoman, Da’awa and independent MPs mobilised against the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council’s proposal earlier this year by drafting a ‘Baghdad Charter’ opposing any territorial division of Iraq.

The document expressed strong reservations over the regional empowerment of elites to sign their own contracts with foreign oil companies and also added that the status of Northern oil city Kirkuk should be resolved only through negotiation and consensus. It stated that Kirkuk should become a ‘model of national unity, coexistence and social integration of the people of a single united homeland’.

Ahead of the game by 15 years are the Kurdish parties which have long had their US protectorate in the North. The Kurdish Regional Government has interpreted the Iraqi constitution as giving them the right to start signing privatisation contracts - written in English, not Kurdish – with foreign oil companies, and passing their own regional oil law and forming an autonomous ministry of oil.

Baghdad has responded by banning all contracted companies from any lucrative south and central based deals, or from exporting through the centralised State Oil and Marketing Organisation (SOMO).

Following the surges of 2004 and 2005 against majority Sunni resistance strongholds, the US occupation administration found their political parties to work with. But ‘genuine’ community leaders apparently felt excluded. A mercenary heading a British private military security firm which will be protecting energy companies in the region told me earlier this year:
‘When Westerners get killed, you’ve got a problem’

‘When Westerners get killed, you’ve got a problem. That’s why we aim to train up Iraqis. There are advantages, they know the territory. Our plan is to have a fully functioning Iraqi division in the future, employing all Iraqi guards.’ The journalistic war-zone mantra of ‘what bleeds leads’ doesn’t apply to dead Iraqis. Iraqi mercenary lives are deemed expendable, ‘Western’ lives lost, with the bad publicity and calls for regulation and accountability that accompany them, are not.

Biden’s partition plan was rejected by both ordinary Iraqis, and the Maliki administration which defined it as a way to ‘partition or divide Iraq by intimidation, force or other means’. Biden wrote an angry repost to Baghdad in the Washington Post in October 2007.

Advice with Guns

‘If the United States can't put this federalism idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and, without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind.’ Biden believes that Washington still knows what’s going to be best for Iraqis. ‘We are not trying to impose our plan.’ He explains, ‘If the Iraqis don't want it, they won't and shouldn't take it, as the Senate amendment makes clear. But Iraqis and the White House might want to consider the facts’.

Obama, although he missed the vote on Biden’s soft partition plan in 2006, appears to tow the line with his running mate. Mother Jones magazine reported that in a July 2007 town hall event, Obama said,
he told Fox News ‘They may not want to call it what I was talking about. But the end result is, there is a lot of autonomy in the Anbar province today. There is a lot of autonomy up in the Kurdish area today. And there is increasing autonomy in the Shia regions’. Facts on the ground have been created through coercive and co-opting carrot and stick measures, top-down social engineering enforced by military might and elite-ratified occupation crafted legislation.

Obama’s website states that both he and Biden ‘will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society—in and out of government—to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.’ Will this include hitherto ignored Iraqi civil society? The oil unions which are vehemently opposed

Obama also states that US forces will remain – albeit without ‘permanent’ military bases – to train Iraqi personnel. With resistance still high against US forces, how would these forces protect themselves without resorting to more permanent bases?

Obama has also stated that he will ‘retain the right to intervene militarily, with our international partners, to suppress potential genocidal violence within Iraq.’ A claim worryingly close to the liberal interventionism arguments still used to justify the war on Iraq.

So what can we believe in? It’s difficult to see the level of agency Obama can have within the context of Washington’s lobbyist-stalked corridors and party heirarchies. Where do we look? Can we come to conclusions based on his advisors such as Polish hawk and former Carter advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, General Merrill McPeak, a backer of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and Dennis Ross, a supporter of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? Or the supposedly more progressive advisors such as Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and human rights professor Samantha Power, who had to resign after calling Hilary Clinton ‘a monster’?

Walking on Fire


How do we judge a future from a page of just over a 1000 words on an official website, an OpEd in the New York Times and no-detail rhetoric in televised debates and speeches? Withdrawal, $2bn in support for Iraqi refugees, and a ‘hands off’ policy look appealing, but election-path dreams can soon turn to nightmares of u-turns and more of the same.

Obama’s levelling rhetoric of ‘now more than ever, we’re all in this together’, may be re-drawing the electoral map of America. But the Oil Law and partition of Iraq as articulated by Obama’s right hand man, could re-draw the social and physical map of Iraq and further disempower millions.

Gene Bruskin, Co-Convenor of the 3million strong US trade union network US Labor Against War, has said that the job of the US anti-war and trade union movement will be ‘to hold Obama’s feet to the fire’, and tell him, ‘Don’t you dare go back on your promises’.

Whether USLAW and others, acting in solidarity with Iraqi unions, will be able to keep up the pressure on Obama remains to be seen. The momentum of the campaign has in no small part been driven by an army of volunteers, lead by both paid and un-paid professional campaigners who will be moving on to the next big thing post-election.

A friend volunteering in the swing state of Colorado confessed he has no idea what’s next if Obama wins. His focus is: ‘I’m just here to make sure McCain doesn’t get in’. This short-term election-oriented surge is reflected in a campaign poster which he works his 14 hour-days under: ‘Remember, you can sleep in November’.

Change We Don’t Believe In


But can the grassroots organisers and engaged constituencies afford to ‘sleep’ after an Obama victory?

If anything it would mark the beginning of a wake-up, to push harder for more - within the confines of a liberal super-structure state-reinforcing politics – and breaking out beyond it.

The early signs are that a grassroots infrastructure is being consciously constructed out of the campaign process. Neighbourhood clubs, networks, new friends and relationships, are being mapped into databases, contact lists and email trees to keep the democratic momentum alive and accountable throughout Obama’s presidency.

There will indeed be the need to hold those feet to the fire that walked into power on the back of votes for ‘the change we need’. This is particularly true for ongoing solidarity with Iraqis who themselves have been organising for the ‘change they need’ – an immediate end to the occupation.

Obama says he is committed to creating five million green collar jobs and ending the USA’s dependency on foreign oil. Yet should his foreign policy as president follow Bush and Biden’s on pushing Baghdad to sign the Oil Law, the results will be division, conflict and decades of dependency on foreign oil companies for Iraqis. This is a change ordinary Iraqis don’t believe in.

Biog: Ewa Jasiewicz is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in London. She spent 9 months living in occupied Iraq working with Iraqi unions including oil workers. She is involved with the international Hands Off Iraqi Oil campaign and ‘Naftana’ – the UK
to any division of Iraq, the Oil Law, foreign oil control and the occupation itself?
‘In terms of Anbar, the Iraqi Islamic party were voted in but the local sheiks, and leaders, they’re now saying, look ‘we’re the real representatives, we should be in power, not these guys’ and they’re demanding new elections’.
In line with the co-optation of Iraqis to act in foreign interests which care little for their lives, this mercenary explained how he hoped his company, defending UK oil and gas interests in Anbar, would soon run on Iraqi staff only.

‘[Partition] may end up being the best solution, but here's the thing. We can't impose it on the Iraqis. The Iraqis have to make the decision themselves…. If the Iraqi government believes that it can form a unified government they should do that. If they want a soft partition, they should do that. If they want us simply to leave, we can do that too. But they have to make a series of decisions.’
Biden still believes dividing Iraq along ethno-sectarian and communal lines can work and is indeed already working. Talking to reporters on his campaign plane in Septembersupport group for the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions.