Why would these people appear to be so joyful? Is it that brief illusion that some power has been regained, that they can finally begin to feel more at home, at home? Is it the relief that comes from believing that the worst has passed, since the worst have withdrawn to bases out of sight?
Apparently Iraq earned the right to celebrate one day of sovereignty this past Tuesday, 30 June, 2009, in what will be an annual holiday to mark the withdrawal of the American invaders and occupiers from major Iraqi cities. President Obama did not make a speech concerning the event, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki apparently “failed” to even mention the Americans in his speech to the nation. Others, however, did remember the Americans, such as those who killed four more U.S. troops on the eve of Sovereignty Day, no doubt giving them even more reason to celebrate. In the meantime, American media commentary ranged from sharp rhetorical questions (what sovereignty? whose sovereignty? freedom from external control?) to some good old fashioned, self-praising, self-absolving, imperialist arrogance (why did they forget to thank us?). In most cases, regardless of perspective, it was not treated as anything more than a minor symbolic victory for the Iraqi regime and a few of those that support it. Perhaps history has taught Iraqis not to take their own sovereignty seriously for too long, given that the colonial and imperial powers have regularly failed to do so as well. In this vein, Alissa J. Rubin of The New York Times sounded a familiar dismissive note:
For Iraqis, claiming sovereignty is something of a national pastime, with various politicians celebrating different markers: 2004, when the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority handed power to the interim Iraqi government; 2006, when Iraq seated its first constitutionally elected Parliament; and Jan. 1, when the security agreement took effect.
Jeremy Scahill was dismissive as well, but from a very different point of view, noting that this first Sovereignty Day, with some events closed to the public because of security restrictions, was little more than U.S. Hallmark-style hype. Similarly, Paul Watson clearly saw where the real propaganda of the event was to be found: “only the most stupidly naive could ever believe that Iraq is now anything more than a subservient client state of the new world order empire.”
Iraqis had to wait over six years before seeing a day such as this, even though 130,000 U.S. troops continue to remain in Iraq, and some even in the same cities from which they supposedly withdrew (where they remain as “advisers”). At least 55 U.S. military bases remain in Iraq, some built as monster complexes on a permanent foundation. Iraqis get one more kick at that: a national referendum on 30 July, 2009, is widely expected to see a majority of Iraqis rejecting any American military presence in Iraq, which is likely to see the total withdrawal of U.S. forces next year, much sooner, and much larger than what the U.S. had planned (see here and here).
If some would argue that Iraq has not yet achieved even paper-thin sovereignty, I would add that even that remains unsettled. The outer symbols of Iraqi sovereignty remain unstable, provisional, and under construction. We can trace some of Iraq’s journey to reconstructed nationhood in its very flag, which keeps changing. Saddam Hussein added a religious dimension to the previously secular nationalist flag with three stars alone — adding the words for “God is Great” reportedly in his own handwriting. Then in 2004, a London-based artist who was a relative of a member of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, created that now infamous neo-Israeli stylistic atrocity, promptly burned by insurgents, with even the colour of the Islamic crescent transformed into Israeli blue (also see here). Later in 2004, the “old” flag was reinstated, but the physical trace of Saddam Hussein was purged, replacing his handwriting with Kufic script, yet retaining the symbols of what could be read as either Ba’ath Party principles (unity, freedom, socialism) or the old goal of a union between Iraq, Egypt and Syria. That flag remained present in 2008, when an “interim flag” was created, with parliament left to settle on a decision for a permanent flag roughly around now, following a national flag contest. In the meantime, different Iraqi flags continue to fly in different parts of Iraq. Perhaps the most bitterly honest version of the flag is that produced by Emad Hajjaj in Jordan, symbolizing the painful human cost of being Iraqi in a world dominated by the brutality of American military might:
As mentioned, some Americans, including commanders in Iraq, were “taken aback” by al-Maliki’s apparent dismissal of the role of U.S. forces in supposedly creating “security” (which itself dismissed the continuing violence that, once again, is rising). They were anxious to assure us readers that, really, the Iraqis are thankful: “Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander of American troops in Iraq, brushed aside the dismissive tone of public remarks by the country’s leaders about the Americans, saying that Mr. Maliki personally thanked him Monday night and again Tuesday for the sacrifices the American troops had made” (source). Quite frankly, thanks were expressed, so it seems that the complaint is really that the Iraqis were not quite thankful enough, perhaps not sincerely passionate in their thanks, perhaps too happy in their celebrations. Otherwise, we witnessed the thanks from President Jalal Talabani: “While we celebrate this day, we express our thanks and gratitude to our friends in the coalition forces who faced risks and responsibilities and sustained casualties and damage while helping Iraq to get rid from the ugliest dictatorship and during the joint effort to impose security and stability” (source). Not to be outdone, the “Kurdistan Regional Government,” an entity that owes its very existence thanks to the U.S. invasion, sent out a press release: “The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is deeply grateful to the United States and the U.S. military for their role in liberating Iraq, and partnering with us as we build our federal democracy. Thanks to the sacrifices and valor of U.S. and coalition troops…” — well the rest does not matter, this is a statement delivered in Washington by a Washington-oriented regime, which ended its press release on a defiantly subservient note: “We implore the Obama Administration to uphold its commitment to a phased, responsible withdrawal from Iraq….It is our hope that the U.S. withdrawal will be no sooner than the resolution of these key political issues within Iraq.” Now where did the Kurds get the impression that the U.S. was in a rush to leave?
One writer, Ryan Witt, appropriately used Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” as a template for his analysis of the U.S. “withdrawal.” Let us take in some of the rich pomposity of a self-serving American view, blind to its own extremes of genocidal inhumanity:
Perhaps most fittingly, Kipling predicted that when occupying a country and trying to better rather than being thanked by the people you would instead engender “the blame of those ye better” and “the hate of those ye guard.” Sadly, in watching the celebrations in Iraq I do not see an Iraqi people thankful for the contributions and sacrificial blood of American soldiers. I see them simply happy to see U.S. soldiers leave. Doubtless many Iraqis blame the U.S. and our soldiers for the violence and chaos that has been part of Iraq the last six years.
Thank You For What?
To be frank, I never expected in my lifetime to encounter such short memories such as Witt’s, such willful blindness, such a grotesque sense of self-flattery from those who ghoulishly cheered shock and awe, and then piously mourned any mercenary who was rightly torched or beheaded. Thank you for what?
Is it necessary to recount how badly the U.S. has bludgeoned Iraq since 1991, with almost two decades now of warfare and sanctions that were just as deadly? Do people outside Iraq need to be reminded that in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, as many as 200,000 Iraqis were killed, then left to suffer the effects of depleted uranium, damaged civilian infrastructure, heightened poverty, and a sanctions regime that left about 500,000 Iraqi children dead, part of a total of 1.7 million Iraqis to die just from sanctions just between the two invasions? Do they need to be reminded that at least 100,000 Iraqis died from direct violence stemming from the second U.S. invasion? How about the internally displaced, and the refugees who streamed to other countries, in total numbering around 4 million? And all this in a country of about 31 million people, just a little over one-tenth of the population size of the U.S. When one recalls the streaming tears of Americans for the losses of 11 September 2001, one has to wonder if they ever add up what they did to Iraq, which amounts to a thousand 911’s to say the least? (sources: )
The question cannot be what do Iraqis have to thank the U.S. for, but when will they ever be able to say that they have made America pay enough for what it has done. Is it then any surprise that people, who in their massive numbers have overwhelmingly expressed their hatred for the American presence in any poll ever done since the 2003 invasion, demanding that all U.S. forces be withdrawn immediately, and demanding that year after year, should now be reticent about saying, “Thanks America!”? What would lead an American commentator to believe that the U.S. could ever be forgiven for what it did to Iraq?
Who Will Decide?
The Financial Times ended its piece of non-euphoria with this bit of one-sided, unsolicited edification: “This is an important moment. But it is only the Iraqis who will decide whether they can summon the will to live together and put their nation and state back together” (emphasis added). Only the Iraqis who will decide — let us see who will decide to leave Iraqis alone for the first time in their modern history, and for long enough, to actually have a chance to decide for themselves. In the meantime, the real value of an annual “Sovereignty Day” is that it will stand as an ironic reminder of all that has not been achieved, all that belies the term, and what remains to be done.