Under cover of darkness, hundreds of armoured vehicles rumbled across the Iraqi border into Kuwait, marking the much-touted withdrawal of American combat forces. Dominant sections of the international media interpreted the August 19 pullout as a political statement — the fulfilment of a commitment by President Barack Obama to bring home troops entrapped by the Bush administration in the Iraqi military quagmire. In short, the American public was made to believe that the pullout by the fourth Stryker Brigade was leading to the end of the U.S. occupation. On August 31, Mr. Obama formally declared in a televised address that all American combat operations in Iraq had ceased. The spin-doctors in the American establishment and their willing accomplices in the media have indeed done a marvellous job. An extraordinary task — of dressing up a new phase of Iraqi occupation as the beginning of its end — has been accomplished.

However, many questions arise in the wake of the withdrawal. How should the pullout be interpreted, if not as the occupation entering its terminal phase? What are the facts on the ground, and what prospects do they hold for the future of Iraqis?

There are three significant markers that the Iraqi occupation is not ending and is being merely repackaged. First, the suggestion that the U.S. combat operations are ending is just not true. The nomenclature, however, has changed significantly. Instead of being called “combat operations,” the act of chasing militants, joint raids by U.S. Special Forces and their Iraqi counterparts on militant strongholds, and other offensive military tasks will henceforth be called “stability operations.”

In fact, the U.S. military officials in Iraq have surprisingly acknowledged that nothing on the ground, in terms of tactics, will change. Speaking recently to The New York Times, Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said: “In practical terms, nothing will change. We are already doing stability operations.”

Secondly, decision-makers in Washington have decided to keep 50,000 military personnel in Iraq till the end of next year. However, their withdrawal is not a certainty. This was acknowledged by Gen. Ray Odierno, top U.S. commander in Iraq, during an interview with CBS television: “If they [Iraqis] ask us that they might want us to stay longer, we certainly would consider that.”

Significantly, the Iraqi army chief, Lt. Gen. Babakar Zabari, has already called for an extension of the American military presence in the country. At a Baghdad conference, the Kurdish-origin General said, “The U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.” The incumbent Prime Minister, Nouri Al- Maliki, however, later, firmly rejected the view.

Privatising occupation

Even if the Americans pull out the remaining 50,000 troops at the end of 2011, it will not mean that the Iraqis would be in charge of their security. On the contrary, the presence of security contractors, comprising a core element of mercenaries, is being beefed up and superimposed to safeguard U.S. interests. In other words, the process of privatising the U.S. occupation in Iraq through a mercenary “surge” is set to acquire momentum in the coming days and months.

Significantly, it is the U.S. State Department which is taking the lead in this exercise under cover of “diplomatic security.” It has argued that it needs personnel, equipment and related wherewithal to protect its diplomatic assets in Iraq. These include the gigantic embassy in Baghdad. Spread over 104 acres on the banks of the Tigris, it has 21 buildings, and is already the size of the Vatican. Then there are the “enduring presence posts” in the existing American military bases of Basra, Arbil, Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala. The State Department has already indicated that its assets may expand in the future, which becomes a further reason for augmenting mercenary presence in Iraq. It has already asked Pentagon for 24 Black Hawk helicopters and 50 special vehicles which can resist landmine blasts, apart from other military hardware. At present, 1,00,000 security contractors, including 11,000 mercenaries, have been deployed in Iraq.

There is also sufficient indication that private security firms will draw their manpower from third world countries to minimise shedding of American blood in Iraq. In a recent rocket attack in the protected Green Zone, two Ugandans and a Peruvian security contractor were killed. It may, therefore, not be surprising if more western private security firms open their offices in third world countries, especially Africa and Latin America, to fill their mercenary ranks bound for trouble-spots such as Iraq. India too may offer an attractive ground for recruitment.

Despite coming under sustained fire in Iraq over the last seven years, it is unlikely that the Americans have given up on their strategic objective of exercising control over Iraqi oil. This is an enduring motive of continuing the occupation, though the tactics for achieving success may change over time, in the light of the quality of resistance and competing military demands in other combat theatres such as Afghanistan.

Those who argue that oil was not a motive for Iraq's U.S.-led invasion fail to see the big picture. Of course, the invasion of Iraq was not about guaranteeing energy security to the U.S., which had multiple sources for accessing oil. By possessing unrivalled military assets, it was also well prepared to safeguard the passage of tankers from oil wells across the globe to American shores.

Control over oil

The objective of U.S. controlling Iraqi oil was both political and long-term. By establishing control over Iraq, the U.S. could do two things. One, it could potentially undermine the OPEC clout by opening the flow of Iraqi oil into the international market, thereby debilitating the cartel's ability to influence prices. This goal is yet to be accomplished and the U.S. should now be looking at augmenting Iraqi production capacity at the earliest.

Two, by occupying Iraq, the U.S positioned itself well to deny future energy flows to its emerging geopolitical rivals. The Chinese, especially, read well the political implications of the American dominance over Iraq. Anticipating the possible negative role that the Americans could play to impede their energy supplies during a crisis, the Chinese post-2003 accelerated their drive to procure oil from areas beyond the Persian Gulf. They also began a concerted effort to draw supplies through less vulnerable pipelines running into China from the neighbouring energy reservoirs of Central Asia. Given the priceless political advantages that control over Iraqi oil offers, it is unlikely that the U.S. policymakers will, as yet, be prepared to throw in the towel in Iraq.

With the Americans firmly on their their back for the foreseeable future, what options do the Iraqi leaders have to acquire greater room for manoeuvre? For starters, the Iraqis can maximise their scope for political assertion and strive for unity to the extent possible under the difficult circumstances. The first test that the Iraqis face is the formation of a new government, following the March 7 parliamentary elections. The Iraqiyya party led by Ayad Allawi, a former interim Prime Minister, has got 91 seats, followed closely by Mr. Maliki's State of Law formation. Notwithstanding their differences in background and politics, the two leaders have some basic similarities. Both are nationalists, who believe in a strong executive at the Centre as the starting point for steering Iraq out of its woes. In a country ideologically mutilated by sectarian and ethnic agendas, respect for Iraqi nationalism and a strong Centre should be enough for the two to override their differences, however substantive, in order to form a stable coalition. Along with Moqtada-al-Sadr, a Shia cleric but strong believer in national unity, the three can form the core that has enough ammunition and popular backing to resist American proclivity for perpetuating a puppet regime in Baghdad.

However, the new government cannot hope for a long-term and independent survival unless it amends, if not entirely dispenses with, Iraq's dysfunctional Constitution. In the name of federalism, the Constitution has made provincial governments so powerful that the Central executive is rendered toothless in enforcing a national agenda. Besides, Parliament has been so lopsidedly empowered that a simple majority is enough to remove an elected Prime Minister. The Constitution thus legalises the establishment of a perpetually weak Iraqi state, open to repetitive manipulation by forces both internal and external.

Finally, Iraqi leaders have the onerous task of establishing a capable national army, not a sectarian amalgamation of militias which is prone to manipulation by the Americans or their Iranian rivals.

Unless a strong state, premised on the rule of law, human rights and a credible military force emerges, Iraq is doomed to endure the ravages of a semi-colonial existence, which can be combated only by a second and more vicious wave of resistance.

More In: Lead | Opinion