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CHUNG Sangho

Change Looming over Iraqi Sky

CHUNG Sangho

May 24, 2006

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Three years after the US invasion of Iraq, followed by occupation and nation-building exercises, big changes are looming over the horizon.

The American press, backed by popular anti-war sentiments, is waging a campaign to put more pressure on the government to pull forces out of Iraq. Meanwhile, US government agencies responsible for rebuilding the war-ravaged country are cautiously suggesting that the Iraqis should no longer rely on American taxpayers' money in their reconstruction efforts.

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee, in his editorial in the April 15 New York Times, noted that Iraqi politicians should be given an ultimatum to cobble together an effective national unity government until May 15. In addition, he insisted, a schedule should be set for American combat forces to exit the country by yearend. Doing so will empower the Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in the position to run their own country, and undermine grassroots support for the insurgency, he stressed.

Thomas Friedman, once a staunch supporter of the US-led war on terrorism, turned to a harsh critic on the administration's handling of the Iraqi affairs in his op-ed columns (March 31 and April 7) for the New York Times. He blamed in particular Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the state of near-civil war flaring up between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, although he stopped short of calling for a complete pullout.

In March, the head of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office said, "The Iraqi government needs to build up its capability to do its own capital budget investment." His remarks are widely interpreted as a signal that the US$21 billion reconstruction program has not been satisfactory and it would be terminated soon without new money infusion.

These two developments, force withdrawal and termination of the reconstruction process, point to a possible change of mind within the administration. Of course, one cannot identify an important trend solely from scattered opinions of newspaper commentators. Indeed, there are many who still defend the US government's Iraq policy.

For one, President George W. Bush himself has reiterated on numerous occasions his long-term commitment to building a model democracy in Iraq. He also warned about the danger of a premature withdrawal, saying it would only embolden Al Qaeda and sectarian militia groups, while demoralizing US troops and undermining US credibility throughout the world.

Which trend will prevail? Like everything else in the world, the future for Iraq cannot be known in advance. In this case, it is useful to take a look in history books for guidance. True, history is not a very good guide for predicting the future, but what can we turn to when we are lost? Although history never repeats itself, there are certain recurring patterns with a few twists and turns from which we can glean parallels and lessons for our future.

In 1920, Britain formally took control of Iraq, the unlikely amalgam of three ethnically distinct provinces - Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, under a mandate from the League of Nations. Three years before that, the British Army, led by General Stanley Maude, had taken over Baghdad from the war-defeated Ottoman Empire in March 1917. That was when General Maude uttered the now-famous line: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."

Sounds familiar? Then let's try this. From the beginning, the British occupation in Iraq wasn't the most popular foreign policy decision at home. A large-scale Shiite insurgency in 1920 against the British erupted and caused more than 2,000 casualties, which triggered a domestic campaign to end the occupation. The campaign, called "Quit Mesopotamia,” was led by none other than T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and lasted more than 10 years until the early 1930s.

Successive British governments appeared to defend their position on Iraq, saying that pulling out of Iraq will only embolden the country's enemies and often promising in public that they would stay in Iraq until 1951, or as long as the country could become mature enough to defend itself. As early as 1925, however, they were secretly looking to get out of the country, which they did in 1927.

Judging from the series of events leading to British withdrawal, it is not difficult to imagine a similar course of action by US policymakers. Already, the three-year occupation cost the US 2,400 casualties and US$300 billion. The media is blasting the administration for making a mistake of being dragged into the quagmire. The administration is publicly repeating its unwavering commitment to freedom and democracy in Iraq, while leaking news of eventual departure from the country. So much of uncanny semblance to the state of affairs 80 years ago.

Korea, having sent the third-largest contingent of forces to Iraq after the US and Britain, is scheduled to reduce its military presence by a third until yearend. Korea's engineering and construction contractors, including Hyundai, SK, and Samsung, have had large stakes in Iraq since the 1980s, with more than US$1 billion in uncollected bills in the case of Hyundai. Other Korean companies, mostly those in automobile industry and heavy machinery, exported US$560 million worth of goods (including indirect exports) to Iraq in 2005.

Therefore, what's happening in Iraq is far from being ignored in Korea, for policymakers as well as business leaders. We need to closely monitor developments in Iraq and how the US policy on the country is shifting.

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