WASHINGTON- The threat by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this month to reject the U.S.-Iraq status of forces and strategic framework agreements was prompted in part by U.S. demands for access to bases that were unacceptable to a highly nationalistic Iraqi population.
But an equally important factor in the apparent rejection of the agreements by Iraqi Shiite leaders is the absence of a U.S. security guarantee against foreign aggression in the U.S. proposal.
That issue loomed very large for Iraqi Shiite officials who have long been nervous about whether the United States is firmly committed to supporting the survival of the Shiite-dominated regime in Iraq from plots by Sunni Arab states and Turkey to restore Sunni rule in the country.
The al-Maliki regime had demanded that U.S. President George W. Bush include a commitment in the statement principles they signed last November. The text of the statement included a U.S. pledge to "provide security assurances to the Iraqi Government to deter any external aggression and to ensure the integrity of Iraq's territory."
But the Mar. 7 U.S. draft of the agreement stated only that "the U.S. and Iraq are to consult immediately whenever the territorial integrity or political independence of Iraq is threatened."
This commitment only to consult was clearly unacceptable to the al-Maliki regime. While visiting Jordan Jun. 13, al-Maliki himself referred to the abandonment by the U.S. of its previous commitment to defending the Iraqi government against "foreign aggression" as "a clear point of disagreement".
The Bush administration has explained the absence of such a security commitment as related to the fact that it would have required that the agreements be submitted to the U.S. Senate -- something the administration wished to avoid.
From the perspective of the al-Maliki regime and the Shiite political parties supporting it, however, that refusal has a broader and more sinister significance. Iraqi Shiites interpreted it against a background of Bush administration efforts to prevent the Shiite regime from consolidating power and the possibility of U.S. collaboration with Sunni Arab regimes to try to overthrow the regime because of its ties with Iran.
A common factor in this history of the "Sunni option" in Bush administration policy is the role of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
The Mar. 7 U.S. draft of the framework agreement antagonised Shiite political leaders and alarmed Iran by using language that seemed clearly intended to give the United States both access to military bases without time limits and the freedom to use them to attack Iran.
But the most worrisome feature of the draft to Iraqi Shiite officials appears to have been the absence of a commitment to defend Iraq from foreign aggression, which had been one of the principles in the outline of the strategic framework signed by al-Maliki and Bush in November.
It was a high priority for Shiite political leaders because of their concern about a possible plot by Sunni Arab regimes in the region and Turkey to overthrow the Shiite regime by supporting the Sunni armed groups within the country.
Fears within the Baghdad regime about such a plot spiked in early June 2007 after an international meeting in Egypt had attacked the Baghdad regime. The Kurdish President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, a longtime ally of Iran, publicly accused Arab states of "conniving" against the al-Maliki regime.
What most alarmed officials of the regime was the attendance at the meeting by former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who has long been regarded as the favourite of the Bush administration.
Allawi, a secular Shiite who had been a Baathist Party activist during the Saddam Hussein regime, was handpicked by U.S. officials to become interim prime minister from mid-2004 to May 2005.
The Iraqi regime saw signs that the United States was again promoting Allawi around the time of the Egyptian conference. Prime Minister al-Maliki told CBS News correspondent Lara Logan in May 2007 that he was watching the Iraqi army "very closely" because "those still loyal to the previous regime may start planning coups".
For Shiite leaders, the episode recalled the period in late 2005 and early 2006 when the Bush administration shifted from reliance on the Shiites as allies against the Sunni insurgency to one of toying with a peace with the Sunnis in order to check the power of Shiites who were viewed as far too close to Iran.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim of Afghan descent, initiated a policy aimed at denying the Shiite regime control over police and internal security organisations. In November 2005, Khalilzad began hinting strongly at a shift toward a "Sunni strategy". The U.S. embassy, which had previously tolerated death squad activities and secret detention and torture of Sunnis by the Shiite Badr Corprs, decided to confront Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari publicly over torture houses being run by Shi'ite officials of the Ministry of Interior.
Khalilzad then announced that he was prepared to meet with insurgent leaders and wanted to "deal with their legitimate concerns", and began referring to the Sunni insurgents as "nationalists" rather than "anti-Iraqi forces". Khalilzad then began a series of secret meetings with the insurgents, brokered by none other than the former Baathist Iyad Allawi.
Khalilzad openly criticised the sectarian nature of the Shiite parties who were in power and made no secret of the U.S. hope that Allawi would get enough votes to play power broker in forming a new government. Even after Allawi's list did badly in the December elections, Khalilzad repeated his insistence that sectarian Shi'ites would not be allowed to control the interior ministry. In the end, however, the U.S. Embassy could not prevent the Shiite regime from consolidating power.
The U.S. had assuaged Shiite suspicions by agreeing in principle to defend the Iraqi government against foreign aggression. The Mar. 7 U.S. draft, however, appears to have triggered a shift toward greater distance from the United States, which implies a move closer to Iran.
The first open expression of criticism of the U.S. draft came from al-Maliki's own Dawa Party at the end of May. Two senior legislators in al-Maliki's party, Ali al-Adeeb and Haider al-Abadi, gave interviews May 31 in which they complained about U.S. demands for "a free hand" to arrest Iraqis and carry out military operations, authority for more than 50 long-term military bases, and insistence on control over Iraqi airspace as well as legal immunity for U.S. troops, contractors and private security guards.
The Bush administration reacted by blaming Iran for the Shiite attack on the agreement. The New York Times quoted a U.S. official as accusing Iran of "orchestrating a disinformation campaign to undermine the negotiations", saying, "This is Iran's playbook."
Iran clearly took advantage of the consternation of its Shiite allies in Baghdad to the Mar. 7 U.S. draft. But the impetus for the al-Maliki regime's shift came from the Iraqi Shiite sense of vulnerability to threats from its Sunni neighbours and the equivocal position of the United States on the issue of a Shiite Iraq.
Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations on the U.S.-Iraq agreement, the more fundamental impact of that equivocal U.S. position is to nudge the al-Maliki regime significantly closer to Iran, which can be counted on to provide unequivocal support against the Sunni regional alliance.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2008 Inter Press Service