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The misbegotten occupation of Iraq has now entered a new phase, with the Iraqi parliament finally approving a new security pact with the United States.

Parliament’s deliberations took place against the backdrop of the huge anti-American demonstrations of the Sadrists (there’s some extraordinary photos of them here).

The Sadrist MPs voted against the pact, on the basis that it didn’t deliver an immediate US withdrawal. Nonetheless, the accord is definitely being presented to the Iraqi public as a timetable to get the Americans out: the Arabic translation of its title reads bluntly: ‘Agreement between the United States and the Republic of Iraq on the withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq’.

Like all Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has depended on US support. But the security pact shows how that’s starting to change.

Earlier in the year, Maliki relied on Iranian backing to stare down the Sadrists. His tilt away from the US and towards Iran is expressed in a clause in the new agreement which the US agrees not to use Iraq as a launching pad for operations in other countries in the region.

That’s intended, obviously, as a sop to Iran. One of the most remarkable and enduring outcomes of the Iraq war is the extent to which it has strengthened Iran, an original member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ (remember that?).

The provision about future invasions is not the only point on which the Americans didn’t receive what they wanted. During the negotiation process, a number of US demands were leaked. They included an insistence that the agreement be totally open ended, that the US retain control over Iraqi air space up to 30,000 feet, and that American soldiers and private security contractors remain fully immune from Iraqi laws.

What they got was quite different. The agreement says explicitly that all US combat forces will pull out from cities, towns and villages ‘on a date no later than 30 June 2009′ and that ‘all US forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than 31 December 2011′. Not only do US contractors lose their legal immunity but it will henceforth be impossible for US forces to arrest an Iraqi ‘unless it is in accordance with an Iraqi decision’.

Mind you, signing the pact is one thing; implementing it, quite another.

Maliki has agreed to hold a referendum next year to ratify the deal. Iraq’s revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has expressed concerns that the pact makes too many concessions , and his statement which will add impetus to the Sadrist campaign against it. Indeed, the Sadrists have gone so far as to suggest they may even resume armed struggle.

But if Maliki faces opposition within Iraq, he also has to wonder exactly how the Americans will respond.

In the negotiations, the US argued for 58 military bases to remain in Iraq permanently. The security deal explicitly rules that out.

Yet, all through 2008, massive construction projects have been taking place on the American facilities. In June, Tom Engelhardt noted:

Think of this as the greatest American story of these years never told — or more accurately, since there have been a few reports on a couple of these mega-bases — never shown. After all, what an epic of construction this has been, as the Pentagon built a series of fortified American towns, each some 15 to 20 miles around, with many of the amenities of home, including big name fast-food franchises, PXes, and the like, in a hostile land in the midst of war and occupation. In terms of troops, the President may only have put his ‘surge’ strategy into play in January 2007, but his Pentagon has been ‘surging’ on base construction since April 2003.

As well as the bases, there’s the US embassy: a massive town in its own right, occupying 104 acres with its own electricity and water systems, anti-missile defenses and shopping precincts. It’s a facility often compared to the Vatican City, housing a thousand people and costing over a billion dollars a year to operate.

In theory, it’s possible that, having built these monstrous facilities, the Americans will immediately start dismantling them … but you wouldn’t put money on it.

And here’s a straw in the wind. Questioned about the contrast between, on the one hand, the Bush administration’s refusal to set dates for withdrawal and, on the other, the explicit timetable contained in Maliki’s security agreement, Press Secretary Dana Perino explained that, when you negotiate, you have to concede some points. ‘One of the points we conceded was that we would establish these aspirational dates.’

If you compare Perino’s ‘aspirational dates’ to Maliki’s insistence on a definite withdrawal, it’s clear that someone, somewhere, is being lied to. But that’s always been the story of the Iraq war.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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