Many official and unofficial proponents of a long-term
US military presence in Iraq are dismissing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's
demand for a US timeline for withdrawal as political posturing, assuming that
he will abandon it under pressure.
But that demand was foreshadowed by an episode in June 2006 in which al-Maliki
circulated a draft policy calling for negotiation of just such a withdrawal
timetable and the George W. Bush administration had to intervene to force the
prime minister to drop it.
The context of al-Maliki's earlier advocacy of a timetable for withdrawal was
the serious Iraqi effort to negotiate an agreement with seven major Sunni armed
groups that had begun under his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari in early 2006.
The main Sunni demand in those talks had been for a timetable for full withdrawal
of US troops.
Under the spur of those negotiations, al-Jaafari and Iraqi national security
adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaei had developed a plan for taking over security in
all 18 provinces of Iraq from the United States by the end of 2007. During his
first week as prime minister in late May, al-Maliki referred twice publicly
to that plan.
At the same time al-Maliki began working on a draft "national reconciliation
plan," which was in effect a road map to final agreement with the Sunni
armed groups. The Sunday Times of London, which obtained a copy of the
draft, reported Jun. 23, 2006 that it included the following language:
"We must agree on a time schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq, while
at the same time building up the Iraqi forces that will guarantee Iraqi security,
and this must be supported by a United Nations Security Council decision."
That formula, linking a withdrawal timetable with the buildup of Iraqi forces,
was consistent with the position taken by Sunni armed groups in their previous
talks with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, which was that the timetable for
withdrawal would be "linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild Iraq's
armed forces and security services." One of the Sunni commanders who had
negotiated with Khalilzad described the resistance position in those words to
the London-based Arabic-language Alsharq al-Awsat in May 2006.
The Iraqi government draft was already completed when Bush arrived in Baghdad
Jun. 13 without any previous consultation with al-Maliki, giving the Iraqi leader
five minutes' notice that Bush would be meeting him in person rather than by
The al-Maliki cabinet sought to persuade Bush to go along with the withdrawal
provision of the document. In his press conference upon returning, Bush conceded
that Iraqi cabinet members in the meeting had repeatedly brought up the issue
of reconciliation with the Sunni insurgents.
In fact, after Bush had left, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, said
he had asked Bush to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces.
Then President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, released a statement of support for that
Nevertheless, Bush signaled his rejection of the Iraqi initiative in his Jun.
14 press conference, deceitfully attributing his own rejection of a timetable
to the Iraqi government. "And the willingness of some to say that if we're
in power we'll withdraw on a set timetable concerns people in Iraq," Bush
When the final version of the plan was released to the public Jun. 25, the
offending withdrawal timetable provision had disappeared. Bush was insisting
that the al-Maliki government embrace the idea of a "conditions-based"
US troop withdrawal. Khalilzad gave an interview with Newsweek the week
the final reconciliation plan was made public in which he referred to a "conditions-driven
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius further revealed in a Jun.
28 column that Khalilzad had told him that Gen. George Casey, then commander
of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, was going to meet with al-Maliki about the
formation of a "joint US-Iraqi committee" to decide on "the conditions
related to a road map for an ultimate withdrawal of US troops." Thus al-Maliki
was being forced to agree to a negotiating body that symbolized a humiliating
dictation by the occupying power to a client government.
The heavy pressure that had obviously been applied to al-Maliki on the issue
during and after the Bush visit was resented by al-Maliki and al-Rubaie. The
Iraqi rancor over that pressure was evident in the op-ed piece by al-Rubaei
published in the Washington Post a week after Bush's visit.
Although the article did not refer directly to al-Maliki's reconciliation plan
and its offer to negotiate a timetable for withdrawal, the very first line implied
that the issue was uppermost in the Iraqi prime minister's mind. "There
has been much talk about a withdrawal of US and coalition troops from Iraq,"
wrote al-Rubaie, "but no defined timeline has yet been set."
Al-Rubaei declared "Iraq's ambition to have full control of the country
by the end of 2008." Although few readers understood the import of that
statement, it was an indication that the al-Maliki regime was prepared to negotiate
complete withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2008.
Then the national security adviser indicated that the government already had
its own targets for the first two phases of foreign troop withdrawal: withdrawal
of more than 30,000 troops to under 100,000 foreign troops by the end of 2006
and withdrawal of "most of the remaining troops" – i.e., to less
than 50,000 troops – by end of the 2007.
The author explained why the "removal" of foreign troops was so important
to the Iraqi government: it would "remove psychological barriers and the
reason that many Iraqis joined the resistance in the first place"; it would
also "allow the Iraqi government to engage with some of our neighbors that
have to date been at the very least sympathetic to the resistance..." Finally,
al-Rubaie asserted, it would "legitimize the Iraqi government in the eyes
of its own people."
He also took a carefully-worded shot at the Bush administration's actions in
overruling the centerpiece of Iraq's reconciliation policy. "While Iraq
is trying to gain independence from the United States," he wrote, "some
influential foreign figures" were still "trying to spoon-feed our
government and take a very proactive role in many key decisions."
The 2006 episode left a lasting imprint on both the Bush and al-Maliki regimes,
which is still very much in evidence in the present conflict over a withdrawal
timetable. The Bush White House continues to act as though it is confident that
al-Maliki can be pressured to back down as he was forced to do before. And at
least some of al-Maliki's determination to stand up to Bush in 2008 is related
to the bitterness that he and al-Rubaie, among others, still feel over the way
Bush humiliated them in 2006.
It appears that Bush is making the usual dominant power mistake in relations
to al-Maliki. He may have been a pushover in mid-2006, but the circumstances
have changed, in Iraq, in the US-Iraq-Iran relations and in the United States.
The al-Maliki regime now has much greater purchase to defy Bush than it had
two years ago.
(Inter Press Service)