WASHINGTON - Instead of moving toward accommodating the demand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal, the George W. Bush administration and the U.S. military leadership are continuing to pressure their erstwhile client regime to bow to the U.S. demand for a long-term military presence in the country.
The emergence of this defiant U.S. posture toward the Iraqi withdrawal demand underlines just how important long-term access to military bases in Iraq has become to the U.S. military and national security bureaucracy in general.
From the beginning, the Bush administration's response to the al-Maliki withdrawal demand has been to treat it as a mere aspiration that the United States need not accept.
The counter-message that has been conveyed to Iraq from a multiplicity of U.S. sources, including former CENTCOM commander William Fallon, is that the security objectives of Iraq must include continued dependence on U.S. troops for an indefinite period. The larger, implicit message, however, is that the United States is still in control, and that it -- not the Iraqi government -- will make the final decision.
That point was made initially by State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos, who stated flatly on Jul. 9 that any U.S. decision on withdrawal 'will be conditions-based'.
In a sign that the U.S. military is also mounting pressure on the Iraqi government to abandon its withdrawal demand, Fallon wrote an op-ed piece published in the New York Times Jul. 20 that called on Iraqi leaders to accept the U.S. demand for long-term access to military bases.
Fallon, who became something of a folk hero among foes of the Bush administration's policy in the Middle East for having been forced out of his CENTCOM position for his anti-aggression stance, takes an extremely aggressive line against the Iraqi withdrawal demand in the op-ed. In fact the piece is remarkable not only for its condescending attitude toward the Iraqi government, but for its peremptory tone toward it.
Fallon is dismissive of the idea that Iraq can take care of itself without U.S. troops to maintain ultimate control. 'The government of Iraq is eager to exert its sovereignty,' Fallon writes, 'but its leaders also recognise that it will be some time before Iraq can take full control of security.'
Fallon goes on to insist that 'the government of Iraq must recognise its continued, if diminishing reliance on the American military'. And in the penultimate paragraph, he demands 'political posturing in pursuit of short-term gains must cease'.
Fallon, now retired from the military, is obviously serving as a stand-in for U.S. military chiefs for whom the public expression of such a hard-line stance against the Iraqi withdrawal demand would have been considered inappropriate.
But the former U.S. military proconsul in the Middle East, like his active-duty colleagues, appears to actually believe that the United States can intimidate the al-Maliki regime. The assumption implicit in his op-ed is that the United States has both the right and power to preempt Iraq's national interests in order to continue to build its military empire in the Middle East.
As CENTCOM chief, Fallon had been planning on the assumption that the U.S. military would continue to have access to military bases in both Iraq and Afghanistan for many years to come. A Jul. 14 story by Washington Post national security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus said that the Army had requested 184 million dollars to build power plants at its five main bases in Iraq.
The five bases, Pincus reported, are among the 'final bases and support locations where troops, aircraft and equipment will be consolidated as the U.S. military presence is reduced'.
Funding for the power plants, which would be necessary to support a large U.S. force in Iraq within the five remaining bases, for a longer-term stay, was eliminated from the military construction bill for fiscal year 2008. Pincus quoted a Congressional source as noting that the power plants would have taken up to two years to complete.
The plan to keep several major bases in Iraq is just part of a larger plan, on which Fallon himself was working, for permanent U.S. land bases in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Fallon revealed in Congressional testimony last year that Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is regarded as 'the centrepiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia'.
As Fallon was writing his op-ed, the Bush administration was planning for a videoconference between Bush and al-Maliki Jul. 17, evidently hoping to move the obstreperous al-Maliki away from his position on withdrawal.
Afterward, however, the White House found it necessary to cover up the fact that al-Maliki had refused to back down in the face of Bush's pressure.
It issued a statement claiming that the two leaders had agreed to 'a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals' but that the goals would include turning over more control to Iraqi security forces and the 'further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq' -- but not a complete withdrawal.
But that was quickly revealed to be a blatant misrepresentation of al-Maliki's position. As al-Maliki's spokesman Ali Dabbagh confirmed, the 'time horizon' on which Bush and al-Maliki had agreed not only covered the 'full handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American forces' but was to 'allow for its [sic] withdrawal from Iraq.'
An adviser to al-Maliki, Sadiq Rikabi, also told the Washington Post that al-Maliki was insisting on specific timelines for each stage of the U.S. withdrawal, including the complete withdrawal of troops.
The Iraqi prime minister's Jul. 19 interview with the German magazine Der Speigel, in which he said that Barack Obama's 16-month timetable 'would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes', was the Iraqi government's bombshell in response to the Bush administration's efforts to pressure it on the bases issue.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack emphasised at his briefing Tuesday that the issue would be determined by 'a conclusion that's mutually acceptable to sovereign nations'.
That strongly implied that the Bush administration regards itself as having a veto power over any demand for withdrawal and signals an intention to try to intimidate al-Maliki.
Both the Bush administration and the U.S. military appear to harbour the illusion that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq still confers effective political control over its clients in Baghdad.
However, the change in the al-Maliki regime's behaviour over the past six months, starting with the prime minister's abrupt refusal to go along with Gen. David Petraeus's plan for a joint operation in Basra in mid-March, strongly suggests that the era of Iraqi dependence on the United States has ended.
Given the strong consensus on the issue among Shiite political forces of all stripes as well as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader, the al-Maliki regime could not back down to U.S. pressure without igniting a political crisis.
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