Further evidence of the humbling of the neocons comes in George Bush’s hailing of the new Iraqi law allowing former Baath Party members into public life. The party was declared illegal by the US-led administration after the invasion of 2003 when the noecons were riding high, and thousands of its members lost their jobs—contributing to the rise of the insurgency and the collapse of law and order. Now Bush says of the law reversing this policy: “It’s an important step towards reconciliation. It’s an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people.” (BBC, Jan. 13) However, high-level Baathists are still barred under the new law. (NYT, Jan. 13) From clandestinity, Baath Party spokesman Abu Mohammad issued a statement dismissing the new law as just “changing the name of the first law” and “an attempt to beautify the nature of fascism… This will not change the objective of the Baath Party of continuing the resistance hand in hand with other resistance factions.” (Uruknet, Jan. 12)
The new law comes as parliamentary blocs representing both Sunni and Shiite parties have signed on to a common platform stressing the need for Iraqi national unity and central control over oil reserves. The new bloc is poised to dominate the 275-member parliament, with a total of more than 100 seats. Among those who signed are the bloc of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the secular Iraqi National List of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, and Sunni leader Salah al-Mutlak’s National Dialogue Front. (AFP, Jan. 14)
The new Sunni-Shiite unity appears to be motivated by mutual enmity for the Kurds—and fears that unilateral Kurdish oil deals with foreign companies will leave whatever faction controls Baghdad out in the cold. Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad issued a statement that firms that deal with the Kurds will be kept out of deals with the central government. “The Oil Ministry would not allow international corporations that already signed oil contracts with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan to invest in Iraq,” Jihad told the Voices of Iraq news agency. In response, members of the Kurdish bloc in parliament called for the ouster of Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani “if he insists on his position.” (UPI, Jan. 18)
The US is also claiming gains in routing remnant al-Qaeda strongholds in Iraq. Combined US and Iraqi forces have reportedly retaken Hembis, an al-Qaeda-controlled town in Diyala province which had been declared an “Islamic caliphate.” (LAT, Jan. 11) US warplanes also dropped 49,000 pounds of bombs on the farming region of Arab Jabour south of Baghdad, with spokesman Maj. Alayne Conway calling it “one of the largest airstrikes since the onset of the war.” (Baltimore Sun, Jan. 11)
But the BBC reminded us late last year that the precarious “peace” that has been won in Baghdad has been largely through US co-optation of reactionary Sunni militias which just a few months ago had been under al-Qaeda command. BBC reporters visited the Baghdad enclave of al-Ameriya, policed by the local “Knights of Mesopotamia” militia. The report admitted that many view the Knights’ leader, Fursan al-Rafidain, as a “Mafia don.” If security and public services have improved under the Knights, we can imagine that freedom for women, Shiites and the secular have not. (BBC, Nov. 28)
All of this points to a move away from the neocon strategy of seeking to destabilize authoritarian Arab regimes, and back to the old paleocon strategy of seeking to groom them as proxies—as long as Washington gets access to the oil on favorable terms. Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsh has a Jan. 12 report from Bush’s Middle East tour stop in Kuwait, entitled “Sorry, Barack, You’ve Lost Iraq,” arguing that Iraq will not serve the Democrats as a campaign issue because US-brokered stability is about to break out. It shares the neocon hubris about US power to reshape the situation by sheer will, but its actual prescriptions are strictly paleo. Most ominously, it warns that by the time of the election, the fix will already be in for a long-term US military presence in Iraq:
In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. [Ambassador Ryan] Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with [Gen. David] Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated: “We’re putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington,” he told reporters. “The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process.” The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush’s Iraq coordinator in the White House—in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. It will become just another piece of the complex global security framework involving a hundred or so countries with which Washington now has bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements. Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to commit to any such agreement without congressional approval. The president said nothing about that on Saturday, but Lute said last fall that the Iraqi agreement would not likely rise to the level of a formal treaty requiring Senate ratification. Even so, it would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.