The state of struggle in Iraq

U.S. imperialism in the age of Obama

The politics of war, and vice-versa
CARL VON Clausewitz famously defined war as “the continuation of politics by other means.”1 In 2011, we might summarize the political-economic situation in Iraq as “the continuation of war by other means.” After six years of military carnage unmatched by any of the (many) violent crises in the last two decades,2the situation in Iraq has “settled” into a multiplex struggle over its role in the world system, its role in the Middle East, and its role answering the needs of its citizens.

The parties in this struggle are monotonously familiar, with the United States, now under the leadership of Barack Obama, attempting to shape Iraqi society to become a cog in the projected unipolar, globalized world led by the U.S. hegemon, sometimes aided by U.S.-chosen—but very unreliable—political-military-economic leadership within Iraq. Meanwhile, various Iraqi centers of resistance struggle for a number of often contradictory interests that can be grouped under the rubric of nationalism.

The current forms of contention, which are less spectacular than the headline-making high-profile violence of the earlier era, make the continuities between the previous war and the current quasi-peace less visible. In scrutinizing this new reality, we can not only make these continuities more visible, but also identify the forces that will shape the outcome of this ongoing struggle.

Imperial ambitions
When the U.S. entered Iraq on March 20, 2003, the goals of the invasion had incubated for fifteen years and crystallized during the twenty-six months of the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. population was not privy to this policy development process or to the crystallized goals; they were offered instead, in the words of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, “the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was the weapons of mass destruction.”Nevertheless, subsequent events (and documentary revelations) have made it clear that there were four principle goals that the invasion was expected to accomplish:4

  • Iraq would become the military hub of a hegemonic U.S. presence in the Middle East, as a headquarters for the main permanently present military force (usually numbered at about 50,000).
  • The Iraqi government would be a strong political ally of the United States, with forceful resistance to Iranian regional leadership and reduced antagonism to (or even allied with) Israel.
  • The Iraqi economy would be integrated into the U.S.-led economic globalization, a process including the dismantling of state-owned enterprises (constituting 35 percent of the pre-war economy) and replacing them with privately owned and internationally connected multinational corporations.
  • The oil industry in Iraq would be integrated into the world market. Production would be dramatically increased and control of the spigot (decision-making over levels of production) transferred from the Iraqi government to market forces of the international economy.

In keeping with the worldview of U.S. leadership that matured after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States sought to claim these goals through a policy of military conquest. Yet, despite the repetitive Beltway claim that the U.S. military was and is, in President Obama’s rendering, the “finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” none of these goals have been achieved.

In fact, this “finest fighting force” has failed regularly in the past few years, with no clear-cut victories since the (now much denigrated) Gulf War in 1990. In Iraq, despite the claims of the Bush and Obama administrations that the “surge” initiated in late 2007 turned the tide on a losing war and led to the decline in violence in late 2008—a decline that has continued until today—the “surge” was actually a failure by any military or political measure. Rather than conquering and/or pacifying the centers of resistance, it created the moment of maximum carnage, a year of unprecedented mass murder (by the United States and internal forces) and dislocation; more than one million Iraqis were internally displaced or made refugees. The maximum carnage ended only when the United States desisted and sought instead to coopt and build alliances with their insurgent adversaries, while discontinuing the high-mortality invasions of neighborhoods and homes.

But this change in strategy, initiated by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, has not been accompanied by a change in ambition. Instead, efforts to achieve these four broad goals (and the many subsidiary aims that derive from them) have continued unabated through a variety of new and old strategies, including even military campaigns. And, on the other side, the recently less violent insurgency has become more integrated with other centers of resistance, some of which have been present during the ten-year panorama of struggle, while others have become more visible and active during this new era. In Iraq today, none of the issues that animated the U.S. invasion have been settled, and the struggle continues at all levels, from violent on-the-ground resistance to the upper reaches of the U.S.-constructed policy apparatus.

Struggle everywhere
The Imperial Headquarters in the Middle East. Consider the overarching U.S. goal of regional hegemony, with Iraq as its imperial headquarters. The projected lightning war was supposed to establish U.S. dominance in the region and soon allow the U.S. military to “conduct post-combat stability operations”5 as the major police force in the region, perhaps even bringing the Iranian regime to heel without the already contemplated follow-up attack.6 Though Washington policy-makers could (and did) count toppling the Hussein regime as a major success, they never developed the capacity to conduct “post-combat stability operations,” either in Iraq or in neighboring states. The United States did build and populate five “enduring military bases” around the country to comfortably accommodate the 50,000 U.S. troops needed to make Iraq the regional headquarters of the empire. These troops are currently still in the country.7

That was then—in the heady early days of the post-Hussein war. As 2011 rolls on the Obama administration reluctantly prepares for the December 31 deadline to fulfill the key requirement in the Bush Administration’s “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) with Iraq: the full withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of this year, and either the demolition of the five enduring bases, or their delivery to the Iraqi government. This agreement was signed by Bush after long, even public, insistence by Washington that long-term U.S. military presence would be required. It did so only because the fragile Maliki government, installed by Washington and distrusted and/or hated by vast portions of the Iraqi population, insisted on this promise under the pressure of massive and sustained violent and nonviolent protest from Iraqis against the U.S. presence.8

But the Obama administration has not abandoned the Bush administration’s goal of a U.S. military force stationed there, an ambition recently underscored by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ assertion to Congress that “there is certainly on our part an interest in having an additional presence.”9 In an effort to modify the SOFA agreement to extend the U.S. presence, Gates flew to Baghdad, where he publicly urged the modification and warned Iraqi president Maliki to “get on with it pretty quickly,” since the December 31, 2011, deadline was rapidly approaching.10 U.S. military officials reiterated and amplified Gates’ public campaign, adding uniformed officers’ voices to underscore the urgency of the situation.11

These efforts to preserve the already-constructed imperial headquarters have been answered in Iraq by regular protests organized by disparate groupings, including the labor movement, the insurgency, and parliamentarians. Most recently, inspired in part by the uprising in North Africa, Iraqis in all the major cities of the country engaged in a “Day of Rage” to demand full withdrawal on time. According to one estimate, one million protesters were involved.12 Caught in the middle, the Maliki government publicly reiterated the original deadline, insisting not only on full military withdrawal, but also on the removal of the approximately 75,000 “security contractors” currently employed by the U.S. government to augment their military presence.13

The question of an ongoing United States military presence in Iraq is a source of ongoing struggle.

The primary U.S. ally in the Middle East. The nature of the future ongoing relationship between the United States and Iraq has been a vexed and unsettled question since 2004, when U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer handed over “sovereignty” to a newly appointed Iraqi government, populated by Hussein-era exiles with long-term ties to Iran.14 Through three elections and four political administrations, the Iraqi government has regularly (and increasingly) refused to support Washington-advocated policies in many key areas, from domestic oil policy to regional diplomacy.

On the key foreign policy question, relations with Iran, the United States has met with failure after failure. At one point, the Maliki government even signed an arms agreement with Iran. Though U.S. pressure quickly abrogated this agreement, it could not prevent a series of long-term economic agreements, all opposed by Washington, that have resulted in Iranian construction of a major airport in Karbala to serve Shia pilgrims, and inclusion of Iraq’s Diyala province in the Iranian electrical grid. And despite the expectation that Iraq would work to undermine OPEC’s cartel control over oil prices, the U.S.-appointed oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, announced Iraq’s return to good standing in the organization and full commitment to collectively pricing.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is in charge of U.S.-Iraqi relations for the Obama administration, has engaged in shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing Iraqi government posture into line with U.S. policies in the Middle East. Like the Bush administration, Obama’s team has had some successes and many failures, especially in framing Iraq’s relationships with its neighbors. There has been no thaw in relations with Israel; public opinion and demonstrations in Iraq place the country among Middle Eastern countries offering the strongest (rhetorical) support for Palestinian demands against Israel. Instead of gravitating into the Saudi Arabian side of the regional equation, the Maliki administration has maintained arms-length relationships with the Arab Gulf states—it has still not settled its reparations dispute with Kuwait derived from the 1990 Hussein occupation—while continuing to build enduring ties with Iran. This gravitation toward Iran also facilitates more cordial economic and political relations with China and Russia, creating yet another difficulty for U.S. policy.15

Nothing is settled about where Iraq will fit into the complex and constantly changing regional political/economy/military arrangements in the Middle East.

Opening the Iraqi economy to global business. In one respect this goal was almost immediately fulfilled. In keeping with the neoliberal dictum of privatizing government-owned economic businesses,16 the first acts of the U.S. occupation government—even before handing over “sovereignty” to appointed Iraqis—included the shuttering of 192 government-owned enterprises, which constituted 30 percent of the Iraqi economy and sustained a substantial portion of the private economy.17 This action immediately dropped the country into a depression (statistically twice as bad as the 1930s depression in the United States) from which it has still not recovered. At the same time, the collateral de-Baathification project—justified as a purge of Hussein’s partisans from the government, but operationally depopulating virtually all government agencies—crippled education, hospitals, sewage systems, and all other public services. These problems persist.18

This set of actions, called by neoliberal theorists “economic shock therapy,” was supposed to be soon followed by vast foreign investment creating a dynamically growing economy.19 But the advertised golden age never materialized. Multinational corporations refused to play their part, and U.S.-contracted “reconstruction” produced further decline.20

Insofar as the crippled and corrupt Iraqi government responded to the ongoing devastation, its actions were animated by pressure from below applied by unions, other civil society groups, local governments, parliamentarians, the remaining bureaucrats and technicians in government agencies, and—most forcefully—the insurgency. Almost without exception, these forces demanded reversal of the privatization policies imposed by the U.S. occupation, usually in the form of demands for utilizing the still lavish oil revenues to support new or continued (local and national) government programs.21 As a consequence, the usually tentative, frequently corrupt, and always underfunded policies initiated by the four U.S.-endorsed administrations focused on government-centered development, explicitly violating or reversing the often vociferously articulated U.S. commitment to privatization and private initiative. In 2010, the government had been reestablished as the principle source of wages for the employed population and the provider of meager but essential food subsidies for the estimated 10 million unemployed, who constituted, by many estimates, 60 percent of the work force. The family food baskets—a main target for elimination by U.S. economic activists in Iraq—had survived, albeit in a depleted condition, partly because massive protests in 2009 led the government to divert money allocated for the purchase of eighteen jets to fund this program.22

As the fighting subsided, starting in 2008, the U.S. pressure for the continuation and amplification of its neoliberal policies became more visible.23 President Obama embraced this commitment in his 2011 State of the Union message, which promised a “lasting partnership” with Iraq.24 The publicity surrounding Vice President Biden’s visits to Iraq made the nature of this partnership explicit by calling for a “dynamic partnership” between the countries that would prominently feature “stabilizing the economy through foreign investment.” The implementation of this commitment was allocated to the State Department, which has been undertaking the ongoing expansion of what U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey called “an extraordinarily large embassy with many different functions,” projected to include more than16,000 personnel in 2012—magnitudes greater than any embassy in history.25

In the meantime, on-the-ground insistence on state-centered economic initiatives has created opposing pressures. Impelled by union organizing, tribal formations, and various politically active religious groups—as well as continued armed resistance—local governments have become the locus for various policies as well as demands for provincial or national action. Provincial governments and parliamentarians also sought to leverage the Maliki administration into devoting oil moneys to such programs. For the past two years, Iraq has been a sea of protest around economic issues.26

Among the few instances that penetrated the U.S. corporate media were the national demonstrations protesting the collapse of the Iraqi electrical system, which has delivered as little as two hours of power per day in most parts of the country since shortly after the United States invasion.27 In June, 2010, as the 120 degree summer heat loomed, national protests erupted in most major cities and many smaller ones. These events were estimated to have mobilized well over a million participants and generated substantial police violence. The protests drove the electrical minister from office and subsequently extracted a promise for a ten-year government (not private) initiative aimed at restoring and modernizing the grid through utilizing as much as $70 billion in oil revenue.

These promises have not begun to be fulfilled, with U.S. opposition to government-centered initiatives an important barrier to their implementation. In response to this inaction, many localities have initiated programs—almost as acts of civil disobedience—aimed at redressing their electrical power shortages and the huge host of other economic grievances. One of the most dramatic moments in this ongoing struggle occurred when the Baghdad city government filed a lawsuit demanding $1 billion in reparations from the U.S. government for damages caused to the city’s infrastructure by the U.S. military.28

The outcome of this struggle will be determined by the playing out of this equation of forces.

The struggle over oil. The Bush Administration, often criticized for having no post-invasion plans for Iraq, certainly had elaborated and detailed plans for the oil sector.29 To keep the oil and revenues flowing, the existing wells were to be administered by the existing (government owned and controlled) enterprises, the sole sector exempt from the radical privatization that was imposed on the rest of the economy. The vast new development, aimed to at least quadruple production, was to be delivered into the hands of international oil companies (IOCs). In doing so, the Iraqi government would be transferring the crucial level-of-production decision-making to the international oil market and therefore definitively undermine the ability of the OPEC cartel to restrain production and control pricing.

None of this came to be, despite the varying plans, policies, and proposals enunciated by Washington in the last eight years. After six years of Bush administration efforts, production had declined by more than 20 percent, no new contracts or exploration had been completed, and the several efforts to enact and implement the proprietary role of IOCs in the production system had been defeated. The resistance came from everywhere; parliamentary obstructionism, administrative paralysis, and local government resistance were supported and impelled by militant union activism, by disruptive local protest, and by myriad forms of violent resistance ranging from pipeline sabotage to the capture of oil facilities and the diversion of their revenues to support local initiatives and the insurgency.

With Obama in office, the resistance continued unabated, though the Iraqi government finally invited the international oil companies on board with eleven new contracts aimed at expanding production at existing fields, coupled with the promise of a dozen subsequent contracts for exploration and development of new fields as well as ambitious new plans to capture and market Iraq’s previously wasted natural gas.30

But this apparent victory for U.S. ambitions in Iraq was definitively undermined by the terms of the contracts the government offered: the proffered agreements were written to give the Iraqi government control of production decision-making; forced the contracting companies to employ and/or train Iraqi workers, technicians, and administrators; and restricted oil company revenues to as little as two dollars per barrel of the extracted oil.

If enacted as written, the contracts would make the oil companies paid subcontractors of the Iraqi government, thus fully reversing the U.S. goal of removing oil policy from the government and embedding it in the globalized economy. While the IOCs initially resisted these terms vigorously—with the main multinationals initially refusing to bid on the contracts—they capitulated when national oil companies, most notably the two main Chinese companies, agreed to work under these conditions.31 Faced with the choice of being left out of what may well be the last great oil rush, the private multinationals rushed to grab a piece of this very much reduced prize—in hopes of expanding their stake and discretion once the drilling and pumping began.

The U.S. government, still committed to its larger goals, has pressed for alternations to the contracts and supported the companies’ efforts to expand their control over the production process, even while the negotiations are still being finalized and implementation beginning. Among current points of public contention are whether captured natural gas will be controlled by the companies or the government, whether refined products will be allocated first to local and national use before being exported, and whether the companies will be required to hire Iraqi technicians over their own non-Iraqi employees. The battles around these and other issues are being waged at the national level in rooms filled with lawyers; by local governments demanding influence over the construction and production process; in union work action demanding fully unionized workforces and full regulation over foreign companies; by local workers and entrepreneurs demanding jobs and subcontracts; and by the ongoing insurgency disrupting, capturing or destroying work sites in support of these and other demands. As the struggle proceeds, all the contentious elements in the contracts will come under dispute. Nothing is settled.32

The struggle over Iraqi oil—which began in the early twentieth century—remains unresolved. The U.S. government and its IOC partners continue to search for a way to definitively defeat the Iraqi resistance, while the broadest range of Iraqi society continues its century-long struggle to harness oil wealth to the commonwealth.

No end in sight
When the Arab Spring spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, it brought to Iraq a new surge of protest. This surge was built on the foundation of struggle that began with the day that U.S. troops entered the country and has continued, in myriad forms, to oppose the constantly evolving U.S. efforts to make Iraq the centerpiece of its Middle East empire. The outcome of this struggle will be determined on the ground in Iraq.

  1. General Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Colonel J.J. Graham (London: N. Trubner, 1873), found at Quoted in “Carl von Clausewitz,” Wikipedia, accessed May 1, 2011 at
  2. Michael Schwartz, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Chicago, Haymarket, 2009), Chapter 8.
  3. Paul Wolfowitz, “Wolfowitz interview with Vanity Fair’s Tannenhaus,” United States Department of Defense (Press Release, U.S. DOD, May 30, 2003), found at
  4. Schwartz, War Without End, Part I. That these goals remained in place for the Obama regime was underscored by a Henry Kissinger op-ed in the Washington Post underscoring Iraq’s “geostrategic importance,” emphasizing that the U.S. had an “important stake in …Iraq’s domestic and foreign policies,” and that “a strategic equilibrium between Iran and Iraq” would be a central goal of U.S. policy. See Henry Kissinger, “Obama’s Iraq policy must be focused on more than withdrawal,” Washington Post, February 3, 2010.
  5. Project for a New American Century, “Letter to the President,” January 26, 1998, found at; Project for a New American Century, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy Forces and Resources for a New Century (DC, PNAC, September 2000), found at, pp. 2, 11 .
  6. Tony Karon, “What to do about Iran?” Time, July 22, 2004. According to Time reporter Karon, “The neo-conservative ideologues in the Bush administration have never made any secret of their desire to see the U.S. military pursue “regime change” in Tehran next. “Real men go to Tehran” was one of their playful slogans during the buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And they took Iran’s inclusion in President Bush’s rhetorical “Axis of Evil” as a sign that their agenda might prevail.”
  7. Tom Engelhardt, “A Permanent Basis for Withdrawal?” TomDispatch (February 14, 2006), found at
  8. Raed Jarrar, “Making the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq reality” Truthout (May 17, 2010), found at Noam Chomsky, “Who Owns the World,” TomDispatch (April 21, 2011), found at
  9. Robert Burns, “Gates: Some US troops may stay if Iraq wants,” Associated Press (April 7, 2011), found at
  10. Jason Ditz, “Deadline: Urges Iraqi Govt to Hurry Up With Request,”, April 07, 2011, found at
  11. Burns, “Gates: Some US troops may stay.”
  12. YouTube, “Video of huge manifestation in Iraq by Sadrists, claiming a million people demanding that the U.S. withdraw,” found at
  13. Burns, “Gates: Some U.S. troops may stay.”
  14. This account of U.S. relations with various Iraqi governments is based on Schwartz, War Without End, Part IV.
  15. “Saudis Fear Shia Alliance of Iran, Iraq and Pakistan,” Guardian, December 3, 2010.
  16. For a report on the advocacy of radical privatization before the fall of the Hussein regime, see Philip Mattera, “A Showcase for Privatization?” Alternatives, April 9, 2003.
  17. For detailed discussions of U.S. economic policies and actions in Iraq, see Schwartz, War Without End, pp. 33-45, and Chapters 10-13; and Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2007), Chapters 16-18.
  18. For a succinct summary of current economic conditions, see David Bacon, “Eight Years of Iraq’s Occupation - Eight Years Of Misery,” Truthout (March 24, 2011), found at
  19. Klein, Shock Treatment, chapter 1. Mattera, “A Showcase for Privatization?”
  20. Schwartz, War Without End, chapters 10-13.
  21. Susan Webb, “Iraqi unions launch united struggle,” People’s Weekly World (January 28, 2006), found at
  22. Ali Rawaf , “Iraq: Guns vs. butter, butter wins,“ The Iraqi Future (March 20, 2011), found at See also Bacon, “Eight Years.”
  23. Michael Schwartz, “Endless war, humanitarian crisis, and perpetual resistance: U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century,” War Is A (August 29, 2010), found at
  24. President Barack Obama, “State of the Union Address,” January 25, 2011, found at
  25. “US Embassy in Baghdad to Double Staff,” Telegraph, (April 2, 2011), found at
  26. See, for example, Bacon, “Eight Years”; “Iraqis angered over ration card compensations,”Alsumaria (February 17, 2011), found at; “Iraq War protests end in clashes, 1 killed,” Alsumaria (February 17, 2011), found at; “Report on Secret Iraq order to stop demonstrations.” Human Rights Watch (September 17, 2010), found at; Abeer Mohammed, “Local Iraqi Governments Oppose Baghdad Gas Deals,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting (October 29, 2010), found at
  27. Charles McDermid and Khalid Waleed, “Dark days for Iraq as power crisis bites,” Asia Times (June 26, 2010) found at; “Power protests,” Iraq Oil Report, June 21, 2010, found at
  28. Rebecca Santana, “Baghdad demands $1 billion from U.S. in war damages,” Associated Press, February 17, 2011, found at
  29. This account of early oil policies pursued by the United States is based on Schwartz, War Without End, Chapter 4; and Michael Schwartz, “Will Iraq’s oil ever flow?” TomDispatch (February 2, 2010), found at . See also the definitive new book by Greg Muttitt, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (London, Bodley Head, 2011).
  30. Schwartz, “Will Iraq’s oil ever flow?”
  31. Ibid. See also Peter Kemp, “Middle East’s Oil – a market in transition,” Global Arab Network (June 17, 2010), found at
  32. For a sampling of the multifaceted struggles, see Denise Natali, “Iraq’s Petroleum Impasse,“ Arab Reform Bulletin (March 2, 2011), found at ; Mohammed, “Local Iraqi governments oppose Baghdad gas deals”; Mohammed Tawfeeq and Mohammed Jamjoom, “Sunni Arabs in Iraq demanding all profits from gas field,” CNN (October 20, 2010), found at; Ben Van Heuvelen and Ben Lando, “Akkas stalls again,” Iraq Oil Report (February 25, 2011), found at; Ben Lando, “Luaibi announces November bid round, export and production forecasts,” Iraq Oil Report (March 22, 2011), found at; Ben Lando and Ben Van Heuvelen, “Maliki’s office stalling oil company visas,” Iraq Oil Report (March 17, 2011), found at


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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