Free and Secure Iraq?

by Richard Pimentel

US forces withdrew from Iraqi cities on June 30th in compliance with the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement established in November 2008 between the governments of the United States and Iraq. According to the agreement, US forces must withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and US forces are planning to completely withdraw from Iraq by December 31, 2011. However, there is a possibility that the Iraqi parliament will ask for an earlier withdrawal. In addition to troop withdrawal, the two governments agreed on other things such as jurisdiction of US contractors, legal jurisdiction over crimes committed by off-duty soldiers, warrants for home searches, etc.

Once June 30th arrived, many Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate the handover of the cities to Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared June 30 a public holiday. There still remains approximately 130,000 US troops in Iraq but they will have a smaller presence in the cities (major bases in Mosul and Baghdad will remain open) and troops will continue to administer land and air patrols throughout Iraq. Is this good news? It depends who you ask. If the polls are to be believed, the majority of Americans want the US presence in Iraq drawn down considerably or terminated altogether. It seems that many Iraqis are rejoicing in a smaller US presence. However, there are other issues to consider. Ernesto Londono and Karen DeYoung reported in the Washington Post (July 18, 2009) that "a new reading" of the US-Iraq security agreement has raised some concern among American commanders, particularly with regards to the safety of US troops. It is called a “new reading” because US military commanders contend that the wording of the agreement is vague and could be misapplied. Shortly after the June 30 withdrawal, Londono and DeYoung reported that “Iraq’s top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to stop all joint patrols in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to ‘notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement.’” US military officials argue that the escalation of attacks by Shiite extremist groups will increase as a result of this “new reading”; a reading which could restrict US military activities that are fundamental to keeping Iraq safe and maintaining proper training of Iraqi security forces during this transitional phase.

Iraq has reached a crossroads, one which will determine the success of the US invasion and occupation and the growth of Iraq after complete withdrawal of foreign forces. The crucial questions are whether Iraq can achieve freedom and security and make them hallmarks of their country. Or will Iraq struggle to flourish if both concepts are not fully functional in their country? According to political philosophy, security is defined as freedom from danger and freedom is defined as the power to exercise choice and make decisions without constraint from within or without. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis did not have security as their citizens were subjected to attacks from Iranian forces in the 80’s and danger resulting from military activities in the two Gulf Wars. Moreover, the Kurds in Northern Iraq had no security as Saddam committed genocide against the Kurds in the late 80’s and early 90’s along with the assassinations of Iranian backed Shiites in southern Iraq. Iraqis, as a whole, did not experience security unless they were fully compliant with Saddam’s ideology and agenda. However, in post-Saddam Iraq, security did not exist for Iraqis until the surge of early 2007. Before then, Iraq was on the brink of civil war and subject to constant terrorist attacks. Although the country is not entirely secure, it is far more secure than 6 years ago when Saddam was arrested. Deaths have risen in June and July 2009 possibly due to the withdrawal of US forces to bases outside the cities but Iraq is far more secure today because of a growing Iraqi military and police force.

As for freedom, Iraqis did not enjoy the relevant kind of freedom during the Saddam era. The distinct concepts of negative and positive liberty as advanced by Isaiah Berlin were nonexistent in modern Iraq. Regardless of how you define liberty, the absence of obstacles or constraints to one’s freedom (negative liberty) and the possibility of people acting freely to fulfill their purpose (positive liberty) were not hallmarks of Saddam’s Iraq. Although Saddam abolished sharia courts and modernized the legal system, rights such as freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, and voting rights were not functional and dissent was not allowed and not tolerated. His takeover of the Iraqi government in 1979 was done with intimidation and the elimination of his perceived opponents: the alleged fifth column within the Baath Party along with the forced resignation of then prime minister, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. In addition, the Mukhabarat was Saddam’s principal body of state security employed to suppress any of his opponents, real or imagined.

Thankfully, some semblance of freedom exists today in Iraq. Yes, there is still much growth that needs to occur for Iraq to flourish as a democratic and self-determining nation but small steps have been taken already. Iraqis have had legitimate elections such as the January 2005 elections to elect the Iraq National Assembly, probably the first free and fair elections in their history. This was followed by a referendum vote to ratify the Iraq constitution in October 2005 and another legislative election is slated for January 2010. There is still much to be done at the grassroots level as Iraq is in dire need of flourishing voluntary civic and social organizations (which will enable the populace to become increasingly involved in the formation of their renewed country) and the need for greater advancement of basic liberties such as freedom of assembly, speech, religion, and property. Another sign of freedom has been the protests that have occurred in the streets of Iraq such as the November protests by Iraqi Shiites against the US-Iraq security agreement. Although one may not agree with the reason for the protest and may not sympathize with the leader Moqtada al-Sadr, its occurrence demonstrates that some freedom exists today in Iraq.

Despite these positive signs, there are still many concerns about freedom and security in Iraq. For instance, free elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a liberal democracy (a democracy characterized by free and fair elections and other elements such as separation of powers, rule of law, and basic rights such as freedom of assembly, religion, speech, and property rights). The Palestinian National Authority is an example of what grounds these concerns. Hamas won the majority of seats in its legislative election back in January 2006. Subsequently, the Palestinian Civil War between Hamas and Fatah began and Hamas gained absolute power in Gaza. The people of Gaza, despite the free and fair elections, were not given a flourishing democracy nor were they given greater security. In addition to Israeli military operations in and around Gaza’s borders, Hamas militia repeatedly launched missiles from Gaza and endangered the lives of people in Gaza. The Hamas government shut down newspapers that sympathized with Fatah along with threats against journalists who held the same sympathies. The basic rights necessary for a liberal democracy are not there. The former Yugoslavia and Pakistan along with others countries have experienced the same struggle. Hopefully, June 30, 2009 is the beginning of a milestone:  a free and secure Iraq.