WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's demand for a timetable for complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, confirmed Tuesday by his national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, has signaled the almost certain defeat of the George W. Bush administration's aim of establishing a long-term military presence in the country.
The official Iraqi demand for U.S. withdrawal confirms what was becoming increasingly clear in recent months -- that the Iraqi regime has decided to shed its military dependence on the United States.
The two strongly pro-Iranian Shiite factions supporting the regime in Baghdad, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and al-Maliki's own Dawa Party, were under strong pressure from both Iran and their own Shiite population and from Shiite clerics, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to demand U.S. withdrawal.
The statement by al-Rubaei came immediately after he had met with Sistani, thus confirming earlier reports that Sistani was opposed to any continuing U.S. military presence.
The Bush administration has had doubts in the past about the loyalties of those two Shiite groups and of the SIIC's Badr Corps paramilitary organisation, and it manoeuvred in 2005 and early 2006 to try to weaken their grip on the interior ministry and the police.
By 2007, however, the administration hoped that it had forged a new level of cooperation with al-Maliki aimed at weakening their common enemy, Moqtada al-Sadr's anti-occupation Mahdi Army. SIIC leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was invited to the White House in December 2006 and met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November 2007.
The degree of cooperation with the al-Maliki regime against the Sadrists was so close that the Bush administration even accepted for a brief period in late 2007 the al-Maliki regime's argument that Iran was restraining the Mahdi Army by pressing Sadr to issue his August 2007 ceasefire order.
In November, Bush and al-Maliki agreed on a set of principles as the basis for negotiating agreements on stationing of U.S. forces and bilateral cooperation, including a U.S. guarantee of Iraq's security and territorial integrity. In February 2008, U.S. and Iraqi military planners were already preparing for a U.S.-British-Iraqi military operation later in the summer to squeeze the Sadrists out of Basra.
But after the U.S. draft agreement of Mar. 7 was given to the Iraqi government, the attitude of the al-Maliki government toward the U.S. military presence began to shift dramatically, just as Iran was playing a more overt role in brokering ceasefire agreements between the two warring Shiite factions.
The first indication was al-Maliki's refusal to go along with the Basra plan and his sudden decision to take over Basra immediately without U.S. troops. Petraeus later said a company of U.S. army troops was attached to some units as advisers 'just really because we were having a problem figuring where was the front line.'
That al-Maliki decision was followed by an Iranian political mediation of the intra-Shiite fighting in Basra, at the request of a delegation from the two pro-government parties. The result was that Sadr's forces gave up control of the city, even though they were far from having been defeated.
U.S. military officials were privately disgruntled at that development, which effectively cancelled the plan for a much bigger operation against the Sadrists during the summer. Weeks later, a U.S. 'defence official' would tell the New York Times, 'We may have wasted an opportunity in Basra to kill those that needed to be killed.'
In another sign of the shifting Iraqi position away from Washington, in early May, al-Maliki refused to cooperate with a Cheney-Petraeus scheme to embarrass Iran by having the Iraqi government publicly accuse it of arming anti-government Shiites in the South. The prime minister angered U.S. officials by naming a committee to investigate U.S. charges.
Even worse for the Bush administration, a delegation of Shiite officials to Tehran that was supposed to confront Iran over the arms issue instead returned with a new Iranian strategy for dealing with Sadr, according to Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times: reach a negotiated settlement with him.
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The al-Maliki regime began to apply the new Iranian strategy immediately. On May 10, al-Maliki and Sadr reached an accord on Sadr City, where pitched battles were being fought between U.S. troops and the Sadrists.
The new accord prevented a major U.S. escalation of violence against the Mahdi Army stronghold and ended heavy U.S. bombing there. Seven U.S. battalions had been poised to assault Sadr City with tanks and armoured cars in a battle expected to last several weeks.
Under the new pact, Sadr allowed Iraqi troops to patrol in his stronghold, in return for the government's agreement not to arrest any Sadrist troops unless they were found with 'medium and heavy weaponry'.
The new determination to keep U.S. forces out of the intra-Shiite conflict was accompanied by a new tough line in the negotiations with the Bush administration on status of forces and cooperation agreements. In a May 21 briefing for Senate staff, Bush administration officials said Iraq was now demanding 'significant changes to the form of the agreements'.
The al-Maliki regime was rejecting the U.S. demand for access to bases with no time limit as well as for complete freedom to use them without consultation with the Iraqi government, as well as its demand for immunity for its troops and contractors. The Iraqis were asserting that these demands violated Iraqi sovereignty. By early June, Iraqi officials were openly questioning for the first time whether Iraq needs a U.S. military presence at all.
The unexpected Iraqi resistance to the U.S. demands reflected the underlying influence of Iran on the al-Maliki government as well as Sadr's recognition that he could achieve his goal of liberating Iraq from U.S. occupation through political-diplomatic means rather than through military pressures.
Iran put very strong pressure on Iraq to reject the agreement, as soon as it saw the initial U.S. draft. It could cite the fact that the draft would allow the United States to use Iraqi bases to attack Iran, which was known to be a red line in Iran-Iraq relations.
The Iranians could argue that an Iraqi Shiite regime could not depend on the United States, which was committed to a strategy of alliance with Sunni regimes in the region against the Shiite regimes.
Iran was able to exploit a deep vein of Iraqi Shiite suspicion that the U.S. might still try to overthrow the Shiite regime, using former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and some figures in the Iraqi Army. When the U.S. draft dropped an earlier U.S. commitment to defend Iraq against external aggression and pledged only to 'consult' in the event of an external threat, Iran certainly exploited the opening to push al-Maliki to reject the agreement.
The use of military bases in Iraq to project U.S. power into the region to carry out regime change in Iran and elsewhere had been an essential part of the neoconservative plan for invading Iraq from the beginning.
The Bush administration raised the objective of a long-term military presence in Iraq based on the 'Korea model' last year at the height of the U.S. celebration of the pacification of the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, which it viewed as sealing its victory in the war.
But the Iraqi demand for withdrawal makes it clear that the Bush administration was not really in control of events in Iraq, and that Shiite political opposition and Iranian diplomacy could trump U.S. military power.
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, 'Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam', was published in 2006.
© 2008 Inter Press Service