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How the Bush Administration Underestimated Nouri al-Maliki

Signs that the Iraqi PM's stance on U.S. withdrawal is hardening is undermining Bush's plan for indefinite occupation.
 
 
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WASHINGTON, Sep 1 (IPS) -- 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 favorable 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 after 2011.

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 center 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 the 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 March 7th 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 specializing 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.