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War on Gaza: US must end its occupation of the Middle East

From supporting Israel's genocidal assault on Palestinians, to fuelling conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Washington has become the global enemy of democracy
A man burns an image of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as Palestinians take part in a demonstration against his visit to Israel and the West Bank in Ramallah on 7 February 2024 (AFP)

On 7 February, a US drone strike assassinated an Iraqi militia leader, Abu Baqir al-Saadi, in the heart of Baghdad. This marked a further escalation in a major new front in the US-Israeli war on the Middle East, which centres on the Israeli genocide in Gaza but extends to ethnic cleansing in the occupied West Bank, Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Syria, and the US-UK bombing of Yemen.

This latest American attack followed a series of US bombings against dozens of targets in Iraq and Syria the previous week, killing at least 39 people. Iran called the strikes a “strategic mistake”, while Iraq said they would bring “disastrous consequences” for the Middle East.

At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured the shrinking number of capitals in the region where leaders will still talk to him, playing the traditional US role of dishonest broker between Israel and its neighbours, while in reality partnering with Israel to offer the Palestinians impossible, and virtually suicidal, terms for a ceasefire in Gaza.

What Israel and the US proposed, but did not make public, appeared to be a second temporary ceasefire, during which prisoners or hostages would be exchanged, possibly leading to the release of all Israelis held in Gaza, but in no way bringing an end to the genocide. 

If the Palestinians in fact freed all their Israeli hostages as part of a prisoner swap, it would remove the only obstacle to a catastrophic escalation of the genocide.

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When Hamas responded with a counterproposal for a full ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, US President Joe Biden dismissed it out of hand as “over the top”, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “bizarre” and “delusional”. 

The position of the US and Israel today is that ending a massacre that has already killed more than 27,000 people is not a serious option, even after the International Court of Justice ruled it a plausible case of genocide.

Now Biden is asking Israel to "protect" civilians before launching an all-out assault on Rafah, but that is clearly impossible. By Israel's own estimates, it has only killed or captured a third of Hamas's forces and destroyed third of its tunnels, meaning that, if it is allowed to continue, the destruction and slaughter to come will be even worse than the unprecedented massacre it has already committed. 

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Holocaust survivor who coined the term genocide and drafted the Genocide Convention, must be turning in his grave in New York’s Mount Hebron Cemetery. 

Mission impossible

US support for Israel’s genocidal policies now goes way beyond Palestine, with the expansion of the war to Iraq, Syria and Yemen in an effort to punish other regional countries and forces for intervening to defend Palestinians. US officials have said their recent strikes aimed to stop Iran-backed attacks on US bases. But the leading Iraqi militia had already suspended attacks against US targets in late January.

A senior Iraqi military officer told BBC Persian that at least one of the Iraqi military units the US bombed on 2 February had nothing to do with attacks on American bases. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani negotiated an agreement a year ago to clearly differentiate between Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) units that were part of the “axis of resistance”, fighting a low-grade war against US occupation forces, and other PMF units that were not involved in attacks on US bases. 

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Tragically, because the US failed to coordinate its attacks with the Iraqi government, this agreement apparently failed to prevent the US from attacking the wrong Iraqi forces. It is no wonder that some analysts have dubbed Sudani’s valiant efforts to prevent all-out war between US forces and the Islamic Resistance in his country to be mission impossible.

Following the US attacks, armed forces in Iraq began launching new strikes, including a drone attack that killed six Kurdish troops at the largest US base in Syria. Thus, the predictable effect of the US bombing was in fact to rebuff efforts by Iran and Iraq to rein in resistance forces, thereby escalating a war that US officials keep claiming they want to deter.  

Behind these contradictory statements, the real value of Iraqi bases to the US military does not seem to be about IS at all, but about Iran

From experienced journalists and analysts to Middle Eastern governments, voices of caution are warning the US in increasingly stark language of the dangers of its escalating bombing campaigns. “While the war rages in Gaza,” the BBC’s Orla Guerin wrote on 4 February, “one false move could set the region alight.” 

Three days later, Guerin would be surrounded by protesters chanting “America is the biggest devil” as she reported from the site of Saadi’s assassination in Baghdad - which could prove to be exactly the kind of false move she feared. 

But what Americans should be asking their government is this: why are there still 2,500 US troops in Iraq? It has been 21 years since the US invaded Iraq and plunged the nation into seemingly endless violence, chaos and corruption; more than a decade since Iraq forced US occupation forces to withdraw by the end of 2011; and seven years since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS), which served as justification for the US to send forces back into Iraq in 2014, and then to obliterate most of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in 2017.

Shocking new low

Successive Iraqi governments and parliaments have asked the US to withdraw its forces from the country. But with talks on this issue underway, the Iraqis and the Americans have issued contradictory statements about the ultimate goal. While the Iraqis seek an immediate withdrawal, American officials have proposed that US troops may remain for another two to five years, kicking this explosive can further down the road despite the obvious dangers it poses to the lives of US troops and to peace in the region.

Behind these contradictory statements, the real value of Iraqi bases to the US military does not seem to be about IS at all, but about Iran. Although the US has more than 40,000 troops stationed across the Middle East, and another 18,000 on warships in the seas surrounding them, the bases it uses in Iraq are its closest ones to much of Iran. 

If the Pentagon loses these facilities in Iraq, the closest bases from which it could attack Tehran would be Camp Arifjan and several other bases in Kuwait, where 13,500 US troops would be vulnerable to Iranian counter-attacks - unless, of course, the US withdraws them, too.

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Towards the end of the Cold War, historian Gabriel Kolko observed in his book Confronting the Third World that Washington’s “endemic incapacity to avoid entangling, costly commitments in areas of the world that are of intrinsically secondary importance to [its] priorities has caused US foreign policy and resources to whipsaw virtually arbitrarily from one problem and region to the other. The result has been the United States’ increasing loss of control over its political priorities, budget, military strategy and tactics, and, ultimately, its original economic goals.”

After the end of the Cold War, instead of restoring realistic goals and priorities, the neocons who gained control of US foreign policy fooled themselves into believing that their country’s military and economic power could finally triumph over the frustratingly diverse social and political evolution of hundreds of countries and cultures all over the world. 

In addition to wreaking pointless mass destruction on country after country, this has turned the US into the global enemy of the principles of democracy and self-determination that most Americans believe in.

The horror many Americans feel at the plight of Palestinians in Gaza - and the US role in it - is a shocking new low in this disconnect between the humanity of ordinary Americans and the insatiable ambitions of their undemocratic leaders. 

While working to achieve an end to the US government’s support for Israel’s genocide and oppression of the Palestinian people, Americans should also be working for the long-overdue withdrawal of US occupying forces from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nicolas J S Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher for CODEPINK and the author of Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.
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