Why Its Iraqi "Client" Blocked US Long-Term Presence
WASHINGTON - Iraqi Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki signaled last week that that all U.S. troops --
including those with non-combat functions -- must be out of the country
by the end of 2011 under the agreement he is negotiating with the
George W. Bush administration.
That pronouncement, along
with other moves indicating that the Iraqi position was hardening
rather than preparing for a compromise, appeared to doom the Bush
administration's plan to leave tens of thousands of military support
personnel in Iraq indefinitely. The new Iraqi moves raise the obvious
question of how a leader who was considered a safe U.S. client could
have defied his patron on such a central U.S. strategic interest.
Al-Maliki declared Aug. 25 that the U.S. had agreed that "no
foreign soldiers will be in Iraq after 2011". A Shiite legislator and
al-Maliki ally, Ali al-Adeeb, told the Washington Post that only the
Iraqi government had the authority under the agreement to decide
whether conditions were conducive to a complete withdrawal. He added
that the Iraqi government "could ask the Americans to withdraw before
2011 if we wish."
It was also reported that al-Maliki has replaced his negotiating team with three of his closest advisers.
These moves blindsided the Bush administration, which had been
telling reporters that a favourable agreement was close. The Washington
Post reported Aug. 22 and again Aug. 26 that the agreement on
withdrawal would be "conditions-based" and would allow the United
States to keep tens of thousands of non-combat troops in the country
The administration had assumed going into the negotiations
that al-Maliki would remain a U.S. client for a few years, because of
the Iraqi government's dependence on the U.S. military to build a
largely Shiite Iraqi army and police force and defeat the main
insurgent threats to his regime.
But that dependence has diminished dramatically over the past two years
as Iraqi security forces continued to grow, the Sunni insurgents found
refuge under U.S. auspices and the Shiites succeeded in largely
eliminating Sunni political-military power from the Baghdad area. As a
result, the inherent conflicts between U.S. interests and those of the
Shiite regime have been become more evident.
Contrary to the administration's claims that it was helping the regime
remain independent of Iran, al-Maliki was far closer to Tehran than to
Washington from the beginning. As a team of McClatchy newspaper
reporters revealed last April, the choice of al-Maliki as prime
minister was the direct result of the mediation by Gen. Qassem
Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods
Force, in the negotiations within the coalition that had won the
December 2005 parliamentary election.
Washington didn't learn that Suleimani had slipped into the green zone until later, according to the McClatchy report.
Al-Maliki has hardly hidden his opposition to U.S. ambitions to
maintain a major long-term role in Iraq. One of his first moves was to
propose negotiating a timetable for complete U.S. withdrawal with the
Sunni insurgents. He soon clashed with U.S. officials over their
determination to launch a campaign against Shiite cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Sadr had been a key political ally of al-Maliki,
and the Mahdi Army was an important asset in a broader Shiite campaign
to eliminate Sunni political-military power in Baghdad.
The Iraqi leader angered U.S. officials in late October 2006 by
intervening to call off a U.S.-Iraqi cordon and search operation
against the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. When Bush met with al-Maliki in
Amman, Jordan on Nov. 30, 2006, to discuss a possible U.S. troop
increase, he had hoped to get approval for U.S. troops to occupy Sadr
City. As Michael Gordon revealed in his Aug. 31 account of Bush
policymaking on the surge, however, al-Maliki told Bush he wanted U.S.
troops to stay out of the centre of the capital.
In the end, al-Maliki and the U.S. command reached a compromise on a
carefully conditioned U.S. occupation of Sadr City. But al-Maliki
continued to maintain ties with the Sadrists.
In 2007, Gen. David Petraeus's project to form Sunni militias, mostly
from former armed resistance veterans, became a new source of tension
between the Bush administration and al-Maliki. An associate of
al-Maliki told Associated Press in July 2007 that he once threatened in
a discussion with President Bush to counter the arming of Sunnis by
arming Shiite militias. The Iraqi leader halted progress on political
concessions to the Sunni community.
As the U.S. command turned its attention increasingly to attacking the
Mahdi Army, the Bush administration began talking in June 2007 about a
long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, based on the "Korean model".
Al-Maliki's responded by declaring that U.S. troops should leave and
turn over security to Iraqi forces.
In August, Bush publicly distanced himself from al-Maliki, apparently hoping he would be replaced by a more cooperative figure.
In late August, the Sadrists were fighting against both U.S. troops in
Baghdad and security forces loyal to the pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi
Islamic Council in the south. With al-Maliki's obvious encouragement,
Iran intervened to arrange the first of a series of accommodations
between its Iraqi clients and Sadr. On Aug. 26, 2007 the Iranian
foreign ministry spokesman, asked why nothing had been done to arrange
"reconciliation" between the two Iraqi groups, said Iran "always used
its influence to create unity between the different groups in Iraq".
Three days later, Sadr announced a unilateral ceasefire. The main
beneficiary of the ceasefire, which ended attacks on the green zone and
intra-Shiite fighting, was the al-Maliki regime, and Iraqi officials
credited Iranian policy for having made it happen.
The Mar. 7 U.S. draft of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the
U.S. military drive in Shiite territory brought the conflict of
interests between the al-Maliki regime and the Bush administration to a
head in 2008. In mid-March, Al-Maliki rejected a Petraeus plan for a
massive joint operation against the Sadrists in Basra, which would have
increased Iraqi dependence on U.S. troops.
Instead, al-Maliki launched his own operation in Basra that was planned
to last only a few days. Then, in a move that appears to have been
prearranged with Suleimani, Iraqi officials were dispatched to Iran to
get Suleimani's help in mediating a peace agreement with Sadr.
The result was a Sadrist retreat from Basra, even though Iraqi security
forces had not been able to cope with the Mahdi Army resistance. That
headed off a major U.S. troop presence in the Shiite south and
strengthened al-Maliki's position in negotiations with Washington.
The Basra agreement set the stage for the subsequent accord between
al-Maliki and Sadr, again reached with Iranian mediation, for a
ceasefire in Sadr City on May 12. The agreement prevented the U.S.
command from getting the large-scale U.S. campaign in Sadr City for
which it had been pushing for more than a year.
The carefully calculating Sadr had been convinced to trade short-term
military success for the prospect of a U.S. military retreat.
Al-Maliki began pushing for "significant changes" in the SOFA only
after the May agreement, but he was only returning to the position he
had embraced two years earlier.
This al-Maliki record of opposition to U.S. political-military
interests apparently failed to shake the Bush administration's belief
that he would yield to U.S. demands in the end. That faith appears to
reflect the official military triumphalism associated with Gen. David
Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy -- a residual faith in the power
of the U.S. military's presence in Iraq to sweep away all local
obstacles to U.S. victory.
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.