Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's demand for a
timetable for complete US 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 US 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 US withdrawal.
The statement by al-Rubaie came immediately after he had met with Sistani,
thus confirming earlier reports that Sistani was opposed to any continuing US
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 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 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 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 Basra.
But after the US draft agreement of Mar. 7 was given to the Iraqi government,
the attitude of the al-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 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 US troops.
Petraeus 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 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.
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, 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 US officials by naming a
committee to investigate US 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.
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 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, 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 US 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 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 needs a US military presence at all.
The unexpected Iraqi resistance to the US 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 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 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 US
might still try to overthrow the Shiite regime, 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 al-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 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
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 Shiite political opposition
and Iranian diplomacy could trump US military power.
(Inter Press Service)