Obama: Listen to Iraqi Opinion

In discussing his plans for the Iraq War during the presidential campaign, one group that Barack Obama seldom, if ever, mentioned as supporting his proposed policy was the Iraqi people.

Obama’s campaign website, which differs only slightly from his transition website, lays out very clearly what he sees as problematic with the Iraq War. It highlights U.S. casualties — without mentioning the hundreds of thousands (some studies estimate over one million) of Iraqi civilians who have died as a result of the invasion and occupation — and the exorbitant financial cost of the war, while arguing from a strategic perspective that the diversion of troops and resources to Iraq “continues to set back our ability to finish the fight in Afghanistan.”

Not only is Iraqi opinion completely ignored, but Obama’s website actually blames the victim — a popular line with both Democrats and Republicans — by stating that “the Iraqi government has not stepped forward to lead the Iraqi people.” How Iraqis are supposed to take control of their destiny with 146,000 U.S. troops — and an even larger number of U.S. contractors — in their country is apparently not a relevant question.

Failure to mention Iraqi opinion during the campaign, however, wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge about what they think. In fact, since the war began, the Iraqis have been extensively polled and the results are telling. Below is a sampling of these poll results, each compared with the president-elect’s proposed policy for the Iraq War.

1) A March 2008 poll by Opinion Business Research found that 70% of Iraqis wanted foreign troops to leave. Of that group, 65% said they wanted the troops to leave “immediately or as soon as possible,” and another 13% responded “within six months.” Such sentiment has remained fairly consistent since shortly after the U.S. invasion. In April 2004, for example, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 57% of Iraqis wanted the U.S. and British forces to “leave immediately.”

Obama has repeatedly pledged to “responsibly end the war in Iraq,” convincing many of his supporters who didn’t dig beneath the campaign rhetoric that he was the “peace candidate.” Obama’s plan from the beginning, however, has consisted of withdrawing only the “combat brigades” over a 16-month period and leaving behind a “residual force in Iraq [that] would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces.”

While Obama hasn’t estimated how large this force might be, his advisors have told the press that up to 50,000 troops could stay behind. A higher estimate came last April from the coordinator of Obama’s working group on Iraq, who suggested in a policy paper for the Center for a New American Security that “perhaps 60,000 – 80,000 forces” should remain in Iraq after the withdrawal of combat troops. To what extent Iraqis would consider cutting the number of foreign troops in their country by half, or even by two-thirds, an end to the occupation is questionable, to say the least.

One recent development that could affect Obama’s plan was the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by the U.S. and Iraq in November. This landmark pact stipulates that the United States must withdraw all of its combat forces from Iraqi cities and villages by the end of June this year, and that all of its forces must leave the country by the end of 2011. In addition, the SOFA stipulates that the United States must get approval from Iraqi courts for house raids and consult with the Iraqis on every other military operation, strips legal immunity from all U.S. contractors, and returns control of Iraqi airspace and the Green Zone to the Iraqi government. Another provision requires a public referendum in July 2009 on the agreement, which the Iraqi people think gives the US too long to leave, according to polls.

Obama appears to support the SOFA but he has not publicly addressed the discrepancies between the agreement and his plan for Iraq — namely, his insistence on a residual force indefinitely into the future. Moreover, he is receiving considerable pressure from his military advisors and commanders in the field to not hold firm to his 16-month timetable or to the terms of the SOFA.

2) According to a March 2008 poll, conducted by D3 Systems and KA Research for ABC News, the BBC, ARD German TV and the Japanese broadcaster NHK, only 27% of Iraqis said the U.S. military presence was making overall security better in their country. If U.S. forces were to leave the country entirely, 46% of those polled said the security situation would improve, while 29% said it would worsen and 23% believed it would remain the same.

The fact that the vast majority of Iraqis, who should understand their day-to-day security situation better than anyone, believe that U.S. forces are more a cause of the violence in their country than the solution, and feel that they would be safer (or at least as safe as they are now) after we leave, renders one of the only arguments still made by proponents of the war for our continued occupation — that we are protecting the population and thwarting a wider civil war — effectively moot. By ignoring this polling data, Obama misses an important opportunity to bolster the argument for withdrawal against those who claim that the U.S. should stay in Iraq on humanitarian grounds.

3) In the March 2008 poll for ABC News cited above, when Iraqis were asked about the security situation in the country as a whole over the last six months, 36% said that it had improved, 26% thought that it had worsened, and 37% said that it had stayed about the same. Within the group that thought that security had improved, 57% said either the Iraqi government, army, or police deserved the most credit for the improvement, while only 4% said U.S. forces.

Looked at another way, less than 1.5% of Iraqis credit the increased number of U.S. troops in their country with an improvement in security. Such results must be almost unintelligible to anyone who has relied on the glowing portrayal of the so-called “surge” in Iraq by the government and the mainstream media. To his credit, Obama originally spoke out against the surge and remained critical throughout 2007. But as the dominant narrative emerged that the influx of occupation forces were responsible for a drop in violence in Iraq, Obama changed his tune. “It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams,” Obama told Bill O’Reilly in early September, referring to the surge.

While Obama’s campaign website does mention “the decision of many Sunnis to turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and a lull in Shia militia activity,” as factors that have influenced the recent reduction of civilian casualties in Iraq, he primarily thanks the troops for this achievement. “This is a testament to our military’s hard work, improved counterinsurgency tactics, and enormous sacrifice by our troops and military families.”

4) In the same poll, when asked about how they would like their territory to be structured politically, 66% of the Iraqis said they wanted to have “one unified Iraq with [a] central government in Baghdad,” 23% preferred “a group of regional states with their own regional government and a federal government in Baghdad,” and only 9% said they wanted to divide “the country into separate independent states.”

Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s plan — which he apparently still supports — to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines made him a very unpopular choice for vice president with Iraqis. In an op-ed for the New York Times in 2006, he and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations argued that Iraq should “establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues.” The Senate then passed a non-binding resolution endorsing Biden’s plan in the fall of 2007.

Obama didn’t vote on the measure; however, he never denounced the plan as being at odds with Iraqi opinion. To what extent Biden’s position on this issue will influence Obama is not known, but the transition website does mention that the new administration will encourage the Iraqis to compromise on “federalism,” which isn’t elaborated on.

5) An August 2007 poll conducted by KA Research found that 63% of Iraqis preferred that their country’s oil reserves “be developed and produced by Iraqi state-owned companies,” including a majority from every geographical, ethnic, and sectarian group.

At the beginning of 2007, President Bush made the passage of an “oil law” one of his 18 “benchmarks” for the Iraqi government. Despite being regularly described as an agreement to ensure the equitable distribution of oil revenues, the legislation would effectively privatize the vast majority of Iraqi’s oil reserves. Four months later, the Democratic-led Congress endorsed these benchmarks — and upped the ante — by including language in the $100 billion war supplemental that threatened to cut off funding for Iraq’s reconstruction should these goals not be met, including the passage of the oil law.

While this was the only war-funding bill that Obama voted against during his tenure in the Senate, he always supported the benchmarks as the correct guideposts to measure the Iraqi government’s political progress. For example, one of the key components of Obama’s Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007 was the enforcement of benchmarks “based on President Bush’s own statements and Administration documents,” that included the passing of oil legislation. Today, this goal still remains on Obama’s agenda. According to his transition website, he’ll work to forge a compromise with the Iraqi government on “oil revenue sharing,” without explaining that such language has generally been code for privatization.

As Senator, Vice President-elect Biden also promoted the passage of oil revenue sharing legislation by the Iraqi parliament, but he’s made far more of an effort to guard against the widely held impression in Iraq that oil is the motive for the war. On several occasions he has introduced amendments to — or publicly supported the inclusion of language in — legislation that prohibits funds from being used “to exercise United States control over any oil resources of Iraq.”

It would not be hard for the incoming administration to assuage the Iraqis’ fear that the U.S. will not leave until it has opened up their country’s vast oil reserves to foreign corporations. With his new bully pulpit, Obama could easily go further than Biden and explicitly ask for new legislation that pushes privatization of Iraq’s oil off the table. Whether Obama is listening to the Iraqi people, however, is the question.

Eric Stoner is a freelance writer based in New York and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His articles have appeared in The Nation, NACLA Report on the Americas, and the Indypendent. He can be reached at: ericstoner1 [at] gmail [dot] com.