BUSH & IRAQ

Middle East
Jul 12, 2008


Bush outfoxed in the Iraqi sands

By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s demand for a timetable for complete United States military withdrawal from Iraq, confirmed on 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 US withdrawal confirms what was becoming increasingly clear in recent months – that the Iraqi administration has decided to shed its military dependence on the United States.

The two strongly pro-Iranian Shi’ite factions supporting the

government in Baghdad, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and Maliki’s own Da’wa party, were under strong pressure from both Iran and their own Shi’ite population and from Shi’ite clerics, including the pre-eminent Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to demand US withdrawal.

The statement by Rubaie came immediately after he had met with Sistani, thus confirming earlier reports that Sistani was opposed to any continuing US military presence.

The Bush administration has had doubts in the past about the loyalties of those two Shi’ite groups and of the SIIC’s Badr Corps paramilitary organization, and it maneuvered in 2005 and early 2006 to try to weaken their grip on the Interior Ministry and the police.

By 2007, however, the Bush administration hoped that it had forged a new level of cooperation with Maliki aimed at weakening their common enemy, Muqtada 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 Maliki regime against the Sadrists was so close that the Bush administration even accepted for a brief period in late 2007 Maliki’s argument that Iran was restraining the Mahdi Army by pressing Muqtada to issue his August 2007 ceasefire order.

In November, Bush and Maliki agreed on a set of principles as the basis for negotiating agreements on the stationing of US forces and bilateral cooperation, including a US guarantee of Iraq’s security and territorial integrity. In February 2008, US and Iraqi military planners were already preparing for a US-British-Iraqi military operation later in the summer to squeeze the Sadrists out of the southern city of Basra.

But after the US draft agreement of March 7 was given to the Iraqi government, the attitude of the Maliki government toward the US military presence began to shift dramatically, just as Iran was playing a more overt role in brokering ceasefire agreements between the two warring Shi’ite factions.

The first indication was Maliki’s refusal to go along with the Basra plan and his sudden decision to take over Basra immediately without US troops. General David Petraeus, who this week was confirmed by the US Senate as as Washington’s most senior commander in the Middle East, later said a company of US Army troops was attached to some units as advisers “just really because we were having a problem figuring where was the front line”.

That Maliki decision was followed by an Iranian political mediation of the intra-Shi’ite fighting in Basra, at the request of a delegation from the two pro-government parties. The result was that Muqtada’s forces gave up control of the city, even though they were far from having been defeated.

US military officials were privately disgruntled at that development, which effectively canceled the plan for a much bigger operation against the Sadrists during the summer. Weeks later, a US “defense 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, Maliki refused to cooperate with a scheme of Vice President Dick Cheney and Petraeus to embarrass Iran by having the Iraqi government publicly accuse it of arming anti-government Shi’ites in the South. The prime minister angered US officials by naming a committee to investigate the US charges.

Even worse for the Bush administration, a delegation of Shi’ite officials to Tehran that was supposed to confront Iran over the arms issue instead returned with a new Iranian strategy for dealing with Muqtada, according to Alissa J Rubin of the New York Times: reach a negotiated settlement with him.

The Maliki government began to apply the new Iranian strategy immediately. On May 10, Maliki and Muqtada reached an accord on Sadr City, the Shi’ite slum in Baghdad, where pitched battles were being fought between US troops and the Sadrists.

The new accord prevented a major US escalation of violence against the Mahdi Army stronghold and ended heavy US bombing there. Seven US battalions had been poised to assault Sadr City with tanks and armored cars in a battle expected to last several weeks.

Under the new pact, Muqtada 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 US forces out of the intra-Shi’ite conflict was accompanied by a new tough line in the negotiations with the Bush administration on Status of Forces Agreements. In a May 21 briefing for US Senate staff, Bush administration officials said Iraq was now demanding “significant changes to the form of the agreements”. These agreements are due to replace the United Nations resolutions authorizing the US presence in Iraq which expires at the end of this year.

The Maliki government was rejecting the US 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 needed a US military presence at all.

The unexpected Iraqi resistance to the US demands reflected the underlying influence of Iran on the Maliki government as well as Muqtada’s recognition that he could achieve his goal of liberating Iraq from US 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 US draft. It could cite the fact that the draft would allow the US 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 Shi’ite administration could not depend on the United States, which was committed to a strategy of alliance with Sunni regimes in the region against the Shi’ite ones.

Iran was able to exploit a deep vein of Iraqi Shi’ite suspicion that the US might still try to overthrow the Shi’ite government, using former prime minister Iyad Allawi and some figures in the Iraqi army. When the US draft dropped an earlier US 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 Maliki to reject the agreement.

The use of military bases in Iraq to project US power into the region to carry out regime change in Iran and elsewhere had been an essential part of the neo-conservative 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 US 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 Shi’ite political opposition and Iranian diplomacy could trump US military power.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US 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.

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