Manipal, India — Although the prime minister of Iraq Nuri al-Maliki has survived physically and politically in his job, he looks unlikely to withstand the blow being administered to his administration by U.S. president George Bush. Once the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) gets signed between the governments in Baghdad and Washington, not only al-Maliki but also other moderate politicians in Iraq could soon become history.
From then onwards, public opinion in Iraq will almost certainly turn in favor of those Shia and Sunni politicians opposed to the pact, creating more followers of Moctada al-Sadr and the former Baathists. Although as yet unity between these foes seems unlikely, the incomprehension of the ground situation in Iraq by Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney may ensure an alliance, albeit tactical and temporary between the Sadirists and the Saddamites.
Just as the effort by the U.S. and the United Kingdom to ensure continued control of Iraq's oil assets will not survive an actual assertion of sovereignty in that country by a homegrown government, nor will the agreement now being foisted on al-Maliki.
Should SOFA be signed in its current form, within months the insurgency will test new levels even while the democratic political space gets evacuated by moderates, in view of public anger at the concessions they would have made to the occupying army.
While SOFA can be implemented in Saudi Arabia, where popular consent is irrelevant, the very processes of democracy that the Bush administration is now touting as its primary justification for remaining militarily engaged within the country would make it untenable.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's difficulties with selling the proposed India-U.S. nuclear deal to his people and parliament ought to have convinced the White House to avoid saddling friendly regimes with agreements that enjoy a hugely negative political impact. His advocacy of the nuclear deal has made Singh and his Congress Party a lame duck, with the party losing its sixteenth straight electoral contest in the Indian state of Karnataka last month. SOFA has the potential to be a much worse poison pill for al-Maliki, who is likely to witness a popular upsurge against it as soon as the pact comes into effect.
Given the overriding imperative of U.S. commanders to lower their own casualties to insignificant levels, the tactics used would continue to be those that inflict substantial collateral damage on civilian settlements, with corresponding impact on public opinion. Indeed, helped by saturation coverage by local television channels, the conflict in Iraq has inflamed Arab opinion in a way that decades of the Palestinian intifada could not succeed in doing.
By occupying a large Arab country and ranging freely through it, the U.S. military has caused a virulent reaction across the Middle East barring Israel. While the Pentagon may be congratulating itself for its "successes", the reality is that the mindset that breed’s violent resistance has expanded exponentially in Iraq, where only those public figures have backing who are seen as hostile to the U.S. Indeed, the Bush-Cheney policies have converted President Ahmedinejad of Iran into a cult hero throughout the Middle East, solely because of his ranting against the U.S., the way they have Moctada al-Sadr in Iraq.
Elsewhere, both Hamas as well as Hezbollah have benefitted electorally from the tailwind caused by their opposition to the U.S. presence in the region, a boost that is growing with each month of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Iraqis have been used to dissembling before the strong and it is no surprise that there is a chorus of approving voices in Baghdad calling for a continued U.S. presence in the country. However, the reality is that the majority of Iraqis regard the U.S. military as occupiers.
For civilians caught in the crossfire, it is a no-win situation. Soon after the fall of the Saddamites in 2003, public order vanished making it imperative for citizens to rely on AK-47s to prevent the rape of their sisters and the murder of their brothers. However, the presence of such offensive weapons is usually taken by U.S. troops as a sign of support for the insurgency, with the owner - or a bystander - getting hauled off to one of several detention facilities for interrogation. More than half languish in such conditions for a week or more, sometimes much longer even though they have no connection to the insurgency beyond expressions of outrage like disagreements on news broadcast by media’s such as Al Jazeera.
Bush and Cheney have seen from Gaza and Lebanon the effects of democracy in a polity suffused with anger at their military. Once SOFA comes into effect, Iraq is likely to go the way of Gaza and Lebanon. Moctada al-Sadr must be hoping for an early conclusion of the agreement that is likely to destroy the moderates in Iraq.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)