The US Can Quit Iraq, or It Can Stay. But It Can't Do Both

Iraqis have a clear idea who they believe funds their secret police

If it ever comes to court it should be one of the more interesting
libel cases of the decade. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service is
threatening to sue Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician, for asking who
pays for it.

is somewhat curious," says Mr Chalabi, "that the intelligence service
of a country which is sovereign - that no one really knows who is
funding it."

In fact there are very few Iraqis who do not believe
they have a very clear idea of who funds Iraq's secret police. Its
director is General Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, who once led a failed
coup against Saddam Hussein, and was handpicked by the CIA to run the
new security organisation soon after the invasion of 2003. He is
believed to have been answering to them ever since.

The history
of the Iraqi intelligence service is important because it shows the
real distribution of power in Iraq rather than the spurious picture
presented by President Bush. It explains why so many Iraqis are
suspicious of the security accord, or Status of Forces Agreement, that
the White House has been pushing the Iraqi prime minister Nouri
al-Malki to sign. It reveals the real political landscape where
President-elect Barack Obama will soon have to find his bearings.

all Mr Bush's pious declarations about respecting Iraqi sovereignty,
General Shahwani is reported to work primarily for American
intelligence. The intelligence service is "not working for the Iraqi
government - it's working for the CIA," Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful Shia
lawmaker, was quoted as saying three years ago. "I prefer to call it
the American Intelligence of Iraq, not the Iraqi Intelligence Service."

seems that not much has changed since then. The intelligence service
does now appear in the Iraqi budget as being in receipt of $150
million, though this seems somewhat measly given the extent of its
operations, which includes running paramilitary units. One of its main
missions is to spy on Iranians on behalf of the US, employing much the
same cadre of intelligence officers who carried out this task for
Saddam Hussein.

Fear of covert US control is one of the reasons
why the Iraqi government has been so intent on insisting that all US
forces be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. The latest draft of the
security accord has dropped mention of US troops staying behind for
training, or making the US withdrawal conditional on improved security
in Iraq being maintained.

The American position in Iraq has
always been undermined by the fear that, whatever they claimed to be
doing in Iraq, their long-term objective was to rule the country. The
overthrow of Saddam Hussein, one of the world's more disastrous
leaders, was generally popular in Iraq. But the occupation was disliked
by the majority of Iraqis from the beginning.

The result of this
is that over the last five and a half years America has always been
politically weak in Iraq. Put simply, it has very few friends among
Iraqis outside Kurdistan. The Shia and Sunni communities have, for
their own ends, made tactical alliances with the occupier, but never
wanted a permanent presence. Once Iraqis and their neighbours no longer
fear that the US intends to rule Iraq directly or indirectly through
local nominees then America's position becomes much stronger.

should be good news for Barack Obama. He wants US combat troops out in
16 months. The Iraqi government largely agrees. But if the presidential
election proved anything it was that neither candidate knew much about
what was happening Iraq.

John McCain claimed absurdly that the
US was on the verge of victory, and during his visits to the Green Zone
his staffers annoyed US embassy officials by requesting them not to
wear helmets and body armour when standing next the candidate. McCain's
people feared this might undermine in the eyes of American television
viewers their candidate's claim that US prospects in Iraq were rosier
than had been reported.

The key to the US conducting an orderly
retreat from Iraq is that this retreat should be real and the US should
not try to control essential Iraqi state institutions like the
intelligence service. It is also crucial that Obama seriously negotiate
with the Iranians. So long as the Iranian leadership thinks that Iraq
might be the launching pad for an attack on Iran it will never be in
Iranian interests for Iraq to be stabilised.

The same is true
of Syria. A problem for Obama is that McCain's quite false claim that
America's position in Iraq has become stronger has been largely
accepted by the US media so any compromise with Iran can be portrayed
as a sell-out.

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