Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Can US Aims in Iraq Be Squared with a Discourse of Iraqi Sovereignty?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 18 July 2011 16:53

“American instructors!”

It has been long in the making but finally there are more specific signs that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is beginning to publicly articulate a vision of a post-2011 US presence in Iraq that can fit with his own avowed aim to be an Iraqi nationalist.

Importantly, after his recent meeting with the new US defence secretary Leon Panetta, Maliki was talking about “instructors” or “trainers” (mudaribun) and not advisers (mustasharun), or, for that matter, regular troops.  Historically speaking, “advisers” would be a major problem given the chequered legacy of the British in Iraq during the mandate and in subsequent decades, where it was precisely the popular hatred of the advisers (and the connotations of their immense political influence) that played a key role in unseating the monarchy in 1958. Similarly, regular forces or the presence of military bases would also be at obvious variance with a discourse of Iraqi nationalism.

The areas in which Maliki envisioned US training assistance included border surveillance, logistics and intelligence capabilities. This is actually a discourse that can fit in with a notion of Iraqi sovereignty: The US is considered an undisputed world leader in many of these areas; hence, to ask for assistance from a global superpower in these specific areas would not harm the idea of Iraqi independence in the same way that the “advisers” of the British mandate did.

Contrast this with the prevailing themes in the Western debate about Iraq. “Absence of external defence capabilities” is a recurrent term. And while this is probably true, as long as it is presented as a general issue rather than broken up into digestible and specific areas  that can be singled out for cooperation with the US (preferably technology-related), kneejerk nationalist reactions are likely to prevail in the Iraqi parliament.  Similarly, many Western commentators like to highlight a US peacekeeping role in and around Kirkuk. This is also something that is susceptible to Iraqi nationalist criticism, because it is a kind of narrative that fits so well with the standard conspiracy theory to the effect that foreigners are plotting to keep the Iraqis divided in order to justify their own continued military presence. If Arab-Kurdish tensions around Kirkuk are used as a key argument for extending a US presence in Iraq, each bomb that goes off elsewhere in the country may soon be blamed on a US scheme to pit Sunnis against Shiites so that they can extend the American presence in the oil-rich areas in the south.

The challenge for Washington is now to find out whether the parameters defined by Maliki – with an emphasis on “instructors” – can meet its own aims in a context where a straightforward SOFA renewal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Maliki seems to be aiming for a military presence that is so low-key that the anticipated parliamentary debate about the SOFA can simply be circumvented. For their part, the Iraqis still need to agree on a new minister of defence.

PS: Today’s vote in parliament to “support a reduction of the number of ministers in principle” is a non-issue. The real challenge is to actually do it and not least negotiate the constitutional modalities relating to such a move (i.e. the rules for dismissing a minister).

7 Responses to “Can US Aims in Iraq Be Squared with a Discourse of Iraqi Sovereignty?”

  1. Wayne White said

    From my service in & travel to Iraq covering all years between 1981 & 1986, at least at that time there also appeared to be some measurable hostility toward the many Soviet military advisors who had been present in the country for so long (for some years from the late 1970’s through the very early 1980s numbering as many as 3,000). Not only was the foreign presence evidently unpopular, period, but apparently quite a few of the Soviet advisors had an offputting manner perhaps in part generated by their own control-oriented Russian minders who did not encourage interaction with ordinary Iraqis beyond the narrow confines of their advisory duties. To illustrate with one example, once I was crossing the Tigris on the little boats that shuttled between the river bank near the British Embassy & the souk directly on the other side (used by many of us to avoid the parking nightmare in & near the souk), I was very hot & tired, had a few bits of embassy business on my mind, and wasn’t as conversational as normal. One of a group of Iraqi construction workers waved his hand in front of my face & said (in Arabic) “Russian?” When I perked up & said, “No, American,” they all laughed because despite my blue eyes & blond hair they thought I was American or British, but couldn’t rule out that I might be a more typically dour Russian advisor in front of whom they would be more hesitant to chat. The atmosphere in the boat improved noticeably after I confirmed I wasn’t a Russian advisor.

  2. Samir Abdallah said

    Which will take priority, seating new interior and defense ministers or reducing the number of ministers?

    It seems to me that the reduction is a big issue that is near to impossible to implement in the near future. It will only distract attention and energy from urgent matters such as naming new interior and defense ministers.

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Wayne, I think that if Maliki opts to circumvent the Iraqi parliament on this, precisely the sort of relationships that you describe may well evolve with respect to the “instructors”.

    Samir, my sense is that there is now more talk about reducing the size of the cabinet. No one seems concerned with the considerable hurdles involved in doing individual votes of no-confidence for a dozen or so ministries, as per the constitutional prescription. You can’t help wonder whether Maliki is just putting it up as a trial balloon while he is working full time to secure his own grip over the security sector!

  4. I saw Maliki’s elaborations regarding instructors’ role on the state TV, it felt like a first offer in a bazaar bargain and it was directed mainly at the members of parliament. He also squirmed a lot in hiding his aggression, there must be a lot of confrontation behind the scene. I think he will offer better “parameters” in the end.

  5. Salah said

    سبب اطلاق نار من المروحيات الامريكية الى اشعال الحرائق في مزارع الحبوب في الحلة.
    وقال مصدر امني في بابل لــ”وكالة كل العراق”، امس الاثنين، ان مروحيات امريكية اطلقت النار، مساء امس الاثنين، بصورة عشوائية على مناطق زراعية في ناحية المشروع شمال بابل، وان اطلاق النار تسبب باندلاع حرائق في اراضي مزروعة بالحبوب من دون وقوع اصابات بشرية.
    واشار المصدر الى ان قوات الدفاع المدني هرعت على الفور الى مكان الحادث وتمكنت من السيطرة على الحرائق.

    Wayne White

    I worked with Soviet military advisors in late 70′s also in mid 80′s what you described I nerve heard off neither from Iraqis nor from those Soviet military advisors. In fact they were very happy working in Iraq and one of the closest Soviet military advisor I worked with he left after three years with his eyes drooping leaving us and Iraq.

    the most important fact in mid 70′s about Iraq specially after nationalizing the Iraqi oil, it the big booming of infrastructures and of Iraq in fact many foreigners and Iraqis who return to Iraq lat 70′s they described Iraq as constriction place from the high numbers of construction cranes and building sites. there were in addition to those Soviet military advisors, Romanians company working in Agricultural projects, Highways companies from Japan, Britons, and Korea, Also residential complexes from Germany, Korea, and Japan, also long train rail ways …etc..

    None of those foreigners have experienced any hostels by Iraq publics.

    let be honest here none of western killed in Iraq for so long after 1950 till 2003.

    This is Iraqi on street talking do we need more to believe US puppet, Iran proxy man in iraq will be a nationalist man of Iraq

    “From the beginning of the occupation I always say, the Americans did not invade Iraq to simply leave. Therefore, I believe the Americans will stay in the country in one way or another,” Amer Habib, a Sunni Arab shop owner asserted.

    Ihsan Burhan, a Shiite peasant, shared the same view, “Don’t ever think that the U.S. will leave easily after this invasion. Even if they leave, they will plant their own seeds in our soil.”

  6. bks said

    Is this 20 July story true? I’m not familiar with the source.

    “MISSAN / Aswat al-Iraq: U.S. warplanes have attacked areas in southern Iraq’s city of Amara, the center of Missan Province on Monday and Tuesday, with live weapons, a Missan Province’s security source reported. …”


  7. Reidar Visser said

    Bks, those claims have been reported across a wide range of Iraqi sources so there seems to be something to them. The Sadrists are putting Maliki under pressure with respect to holding US forces to account for their actions in the southern governorates lately, viz.

    النائب الشهيلي يطالب الحكومة بمحاسبة القوات الامريكية لقصفها مناطق بالمحافظات الجنوبية

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