Khalaf Al-Ulayyan, a member of the Iraqi Parliament, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. According to Al-Ulayyan and others in Parliament, the vast majority of Iraqis favor a complete US withdrawal from Iraq.
(Photo: Jose Luis Magana / AP)
Truthout discusses Iraq's future and the politics of US influence with two visiting Iraqi Parliamentarians.
Last week, for the first time, two Iraqi members of Parliament (MPs) testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They spoke bluntly.
"The anarchy and chaos in Iraq is linked to the presence of the occupation, not withdrawal from Iraq," Nadeem Al-Jaberi, an MP and co-founder of the Al-Fadhila party, testified.
Under questioning by Republican Congress members, Al-Jaberi repeatedly renounced the "success of the surge," and added, "What we strive for is establishing a balanced relationship between the two countries. But nothing of this could be made possible until the troops withdraw from Iraq."
In fact, Al-Jaberi told Truthout, not only do most Iraqis strongly oppose the kind of agreement that President Bush hopes to negotiate with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, which would keep US troops in Iraq on a long-term basis; they see a complete troop withdrawal as a precursor to any diplomatic negotiation.
"The majority of Iraqi MPs, and more than 70 percent of the Iraqi people, are against signing any agreements or treaties with the US while Iraq is under the occupation," Al-Jaberi said.
What does "the occupation" mean? According to Al-Jaberi and Khalaf Al-Ulayyan, an MP and founder of the National Dialogue Council party, it goes beyond the presence of combat troops. Other elements of the US presence - some of which might be considered charitable in a different context - also cement its force as an occupying power, including its plan to leave behind American troops and contractors to train Iraqi soldiers.
This rejection of the use of the US military to train Iraqi troops after withdrawal is "completed" contrasts not only with Bush's plans, but also with many Democrat-supported proposals for redeployment. The two redeployment bills which passed the House last year (both of which were defeated in the Senate) would have withdrawn all troops except for those needed to guard the American embassy, "conduct targeted counterterrorism operations" and train and equip the Iraqi Army.
"Iraqis have enough experience in military training, and we don't need the US to train us," Al-Ulayyan told Truthout. "The problem with the current Iraqi armed forces is not the lack of training, but the lack of loyalty to Iraq."
The MPs hold that a US training presence inhibits the solidification of Iraq's national identity, a necessary step toward strengthening its army.
According to a letter to Congress signed by Iraqi Parliament members representing the majority parties, "The Iraqi Council of Representatives is looking to ratify agreements that end every form of American intervention in Iraq's internal affairs and restore Iraq's independence and sovereignty over its land."
The letter requests not only the removal of all soldiers and military bases, but also of "hired fighters," pointing to another aspect of withdrawal that the Iraqi Parliament has its eye on, although previous drafts of US withdrawal legislation - and much of the presidential debate - have overlooked it: the use of private military contractors in Iraq.
"US mercenaries are viewed by Iraqis as criminal gangs protected by the occupation," Al-Ulayyan told Truthout.
Defending Iraqi Unity
Congress brought Al-Jaberi and Al-Ulayyan to speak before the Foreign Affairs Committee so they could express their dissatisfaction with the proposed US-Iraq security agreement, corroborating Congress's own fears of an exclusive, bilateral agreement between their two executive branches that would commit US troops to a long-term occupation.
The visit evoked some striking parallels between the executive-legislative relationships in the US and Iraq. Although the MPs' parties control the majority of the Parliament, they're not represented in the executive branch. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Cabinet aim to cooperate with President Bush, prolonging the occupation, Parliament overwhelmingly opposes the presence of US troops in Iraq.
Despite their shared sympathies with many in Congress, the MPs did not accept all of their hosts' ideas on Iraq. They emphasized that, when it comes to Iraq's future, Iraqis know best how to plan for it, and said that, for the majority of Parliament, that plan would include a strong centralized government. Al-Jaberi and Al-Ulayyan advocate a structure similar to that of the United States, with both a central administration and smaller provinces, divided by geography, not demography.
However, some prominent US Congress members hold a different view: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden has been pushing for a loose, "federalist" coalition of regional governments in Iraq, divided along religious sectarian lines and headed by a less powerful national administration. He led the drive to pass an amendment for the establishment of such a government last year.
Al-Ulayyan testified that overcoming - not reinforcing - sectarian tensions would be vital to ensuring peace in the country. Prior to their testimony, Al-Jaberi and Al-Ulayyan had scheduled a meeting with Senator Biden's office. After the MPs spoke against the idea of a sect-based partition, Biden's staff canceled their meeting, according to Raed Jarrar, the American Friends Service Committee's Iraq consultant, who helped coordinate the MPs' visit.
Yet, the MPs are holding their ground. Al-Ulayyan told Truthout that the call for unification is echoed by most Iraqis, whose national pride is often overlooked by US politicians' theories.
"All Iraqis - Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians, and others - want to live together in one united country," Al-Ulayyan said. "Partitioning Iraq will lead to indefinite violence and destruction."
The MPs' adamancy harkens back to a Lincoln-like cry for unity; a reminder that the Iraqi nationality need not be usurped by disparate religious identities. Al-Jaberi calls the idea of partitioning Iraq a "disaster."
"The vast majority of Iraqis will fight to maintain their country's territorial integrity," he told Truthout.
The MPs' overarching message: They're eager for a partnership with US Congress members that will help them work toward shared goals, but they're not interested in conforming to the demands of any American bosses, be they Republican or Democrat. The key to achieving Iraqi sovereignty, they say, will be allowing Iraq to determine what that sovereignty looks like.
"We think that the American people and Congress are misinformed about what the Iraqis want," Al-Ulayyan said, adding, "We hope we will have more chances to bring the voices of the majority of Iraqis to America."