The perfect exit strategy

THIS may sound somewhat Machiavellian, but what if the anti-US demonstrations that have sprung up all over Baghdad and other cities in Iraq on Monday to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the fall of Iraq’s capital city were instigated by the Americans themselves? Far fetched? Yes, but stranger things happen.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Thu 12 Apr 2007, 8:27 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Nothing is easier in the Middle East than to rent-a-crowd, especially when that crowd is expected to demonstrate against the US military presence in their country. Given how many Arabs feel about American foreign policy, there will be no shortage of volunteers happy to march through their streets while chanting “Down, Down USA.”

But the day after tens of thousands of Shias took to the streets of Iraqi cities in protest against the US presence in Iraq which they called “an occupation,” General David Petraeus, the top American general in Iraq, delivered a somewhat pointed message to Iraqis.

Petraeus told Iraqis that it is within their right to protest. "Those who take to the streets to protest ... should recall that were it not for the actions of coalition forces in 2003 (and to be sure actions by Iraqis and coalition forces since then) they also would not have been able to celebrate the recent religious holidays as they did in such massive numbers."

But people have short memories.

The protesters who convened en masse on Monday in Najaf, the holiest city for Shias, were mainly followers of the firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr. The young cleric claims one of the largest militias in Iraq -- the Mahdi Army. He is believed to be behind much of the sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

In his April 9 message to people of Najaf, Petraeus wrote that it was of particular importance to him that the people of Najaf remember that it was the 101st Airborne Division that he commanded in 2003 that liberated Najaf and nearby Kufa in 2003, from Saddam’s tyranny.

"Our soldiers sacrificed greatly to give the Najafis and millions of other Iraqis the freedoms, however imperfect they may be, they enjoy today," Petraeus wrote.

Petraeus did not shy away from bringing to light the mistakes and shortcomings of the US occupation. "The past four years have been ... disappointing, frustrating and increasingly dangerous in many parts of Iraq for those who have been involved in helping to build a new state in this ancient land," he wrote. "I would add however that the coalition has, at the least, consistently sought to learn from its mistakes."

Indeed, if enough protests demanding a US withdrawal from Iraq were to be seen and heard around the world, the Americans could claim that seeing their presence is no longer wanted in Iraq, it was therefore time to leave. If it came to that, the United States could begin to withdraw without appearing to lose face. After all, the reason for the invasion of Iraq was to bring democracy to the country (that’s after no WMDs were found and no links between Al Qaieda and Saddam could be established). And now that Iraq sort of has a semi-democratic system in place, and it’s the Iraqi people who are asking the Americans to leave, by all means they can honourably say they are only respecting the will of the Iraqi people. The president can go on national television and declare that “objectives were met.”

The dangers involved in a premature US pullout would quite certainly invite greater violence. In the north the Kurds — who have been semiautonomous since the last Gulf war in 1991 — will see this as an opportunity to declare full independence. That would trigger an immediate reaction from Turkey who would not hesitate to intervene militarily to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdish state.

The south of the country as most of Baghdad, would be dominated by the country’s Shias. The great losers in the event of a breakup of Iraq would ultimately be the Sunnis. Now here’s the million dollar question: would Iraq’s Sunni neighbours, Jordan and Saudi Arabia allow this to happen? Or are we looking at a wider conflict? And who stands to gain from such an eventuality?

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. Comments may be sent to

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