The opening day of the Petraeus performance went pretty much according to script. The somber general and the geeky ambassador were careful to promise not victory but the possibility of success, vaguely defined. And, of course, Petraeus warned of the "devastating consequences" of what he called a "premature drawdown."
Petraeus threw out a bunch of stats, flipped some charts, and pointed to tables all indicating that the situation is improving. These are suspect. "The number of overall civilian deaths" has declined since December, he said, for instance. But a report by the McClatchy news service on Sunday rebuts this.
"Civilian deaths haven't decreased in any significant way across the country," the report says. "According to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, 984 people were killed across Iraq in February, and 1,011 died in violence in August. But an official in the ministry who spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to release numbers said those numbers were heavily manipulated. The official said 1,980 Iraqis had been killed in July and that violent deaths soared in August to 2,890." (Thanks to Juan Cole's website for drawing this to my attention.) By the way, Petraeus admitted that he didn't count Shiite-on-Shiite violence or Sunni-on-Sunni violence.
The Iraqis themselves do not feel safer thanks to the surge. "More Iraqis say security in their local area has gotten worse in the last six months than say it's gotten better, 31 percent to 24 percent, with the rest reporting no change," according to an ABC News, BBC, and NHK (Japan) poll. Far more, six in 10, say security in the country overall has worsened since the surge began, while just one in 10 sees improvement."
More troubling for the American troops, "79 percent of Iraqis oppose the presence" of U.S. troops in their country, and "57 percent call violence against U.S. forces acceptable, up six points" from last year, ABC News says.
Hard to win that way. (Petraeus went to great lengths to stress the progress with Sunnis. But this poll shows 93 percent of Sunnis believe it is acceptable to use violence against our troops.)
Even worse than the numbers game Petraeus played was the political game. While he admitted that "the fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources," this did not stop him from magnifying two other factors: Al Qaeda and Iran.
By my count, he mentioned Al Qaeda 23 times in his statement, and he tended to blur the distinction between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. Petraeus simply used the phrase Al Qaeda 16 of those 23 times. He and his commander in chief want us all to think they are one and the same.
When Representative Gary Ackerman grilled him on the so-called threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq, he was nonplussed, and even averred that he didn't know what the consequence would be if the United States left Iraq before killing every Al Qaeda member.
What's more, his argument on Al Qaeda in Iraq is self-defeating. He boasts that "the most significant development in the past six months likely has been the increasing emergence of tribes and local citizens rejecting Al Qaeda and other extremists." And the ABC poll confirms this: 100 percent of Iraqis reject Al Qaeda in Iraq's policy of attacking civilians, 98 percent reject its attempt to gain control of some territory, and 97 percent repudiate its effort at recruiting foreign fighters. So, if the Iraqi population is so opposed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, then the United States could safely leave and let the Iraqis smash the remaining forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which amount to only a few thousand, according to Petraeus.
On Iran, Petraeus played the good soldier. He referred to Iran ten times in his opening statement, decrying its "malign actions." But Saudi Arabia is the leading supplier of foreign fighters in Iraq. Guess how many times Petraeus mentioned Saudi Arabia: none.
As a mark of progress, Petraeus mentioned that "Iraq is becoming one of the United States's larger foreign military sales customers, committing some $1.6 billion to FMS already, with the possibility of up to $1.8 billion more being committed before the end of this year." This is good for U.S. arms manufacturers, but that's about it.
And Petraeus also crowed that Iraq's leaders "want to negotiate a long-term security agreement with the United States and other nations."
That's short for permanent American military bases in Iraq.
It's that, and the oil, which is driving U.S. policy.
"The U.S. is putting maximum pressure to pass the [oil] law," says Nadim al-Jaberi, head of the al Fadhila Party, in a revealing article on Alternet by Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar.
The authors also point out that the United States is leaning against a strong national government in Baghdad, which a majority of Iraqis want, and instead favors a kind of weak federalism.
Ambassador Crocker hinted broadly about this in his testimony. "No longer is an all-powerful Baghdad seen as the panacea to Iraq's problems," he said. "This thinking is nascent, but it is ultimately critical to the evolution of a common vision among all Iraqi leaders."
And it may be critical to the U.S. oil companies that aren't getting their way just yet from Baghdad.
"Today, we find out the Hunt Corporation of Texas has signed an oil exploration agreement with Kurdistan," Representative Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii told Petraeus. "The central government is cut out. At the same time, we read that the Commerce Department is seeking an international legal adviser to draft laws and regulations that will govern Iraq's oil and gas sector. We are going to be doing the drafting of the oil protocols. Iraq is not a sovereign country."
Petraeus had no answer for that one.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.
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