U.S. officials privately admit being concerned
that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki has become "overconfident"
about his governments ability to manage without US combat troops, according
to an Iraq analyst who just returned from a trip to Iraq arranged by US commander
General David Petraeus.
Colin Kahl, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
which has supported a long-term US military presence in Iraq told the
press this week that there was "a certain degree of grudging respect for
al- Maliki" among officials with whom we met, "but more often concern
about his emerging overconfidence which is making it difficult to interact with
That assessment contrasts with statements of George W. Bush administration
officials implying that al-Malikis public demands for a timetable for
US military withdrawal are merely negotiating ploys or political grandstanding.
US officials admitted that al-Malikis overconfidence has influenced the
status of forces negotiations, according to Kahl. None of the US officials in
Baghdad would "lead off with badmouthing the prime minister," Kahl
said in an interview with IPS, but upon probing further, "you get a sense
they are concerned that the al-Maliki regime has an inflated sense of his power."
The Bush administration hoped negotiations with al-Maliki on a status of forces
agreement would legitimize a long-term US military presence in Iraq and control
over a number of military bases, but the Iraqi leader refused to go along with
an agreement that lacked a timetable for withdrawal of all US troops.
Al-Malikis new sense of confidence has been accompanied by a new political
identity as a nationalist foe of the occupation, according to Kahl. "He
is successfully fashioning himself as an Iraqi hero who kicked the Americans
out. That makes him difficult to negotiate with."
One of the consequences of al-Malikis perception of the new power relations
in Iraq is that he is even less inclined than before to make accommodations
with former Sunni insurgents now on the US payroll in the militias called "Sons
Kahl said in the briefing that, of the 103,000 Sunnis belonging to those militias,
the Iraqi government had promised to take into the security forces only about
16,000. But in fact, it has approved only 600 applicants thus far, according
to Kahl, and most of those have turned out to be Shia rather than Sunni militiamen.
"Theres even some evidence that [al-Maliki] wants to start a fight
with the 'Sons of Iraq,'" said Kahl. "Al-Maliki doesnt believe
he has to accommodate these people. He will only do it if we twist his arm to
the breaking point."
Kahl said al-Maliki has made a series of moves that have consolidated his personal
power position within the state apparatus as well as in relation to various
armed groups in the country. He has put intelligence agencies directly under
his control and has set up major military operation centers around the country
which report directly to the prime ministers office.
Even more important, however, Al-Malikis power position has also been
bolstered by the decisions by nationalist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr not
to launch a concerted military resistance to US and Iraqi government campaigns
to weaken his Mahdi Army in 2007 and then to give up his political-military
power positions in Basra, Sadr City and Amarah in 2008 without having been militarily
Petraeus and the US military command in Iraq have asserted that al-Sadrs
decisions reflected the fact that the Mahdi Army had been weakened by US military
pressures. However, the broader set of developments over the past year suggests
that the primary reason for Sadrs willingness to give up military resistance
was a strategic understanding with Iran to shift to political and diplomatic
resistance to the US military presence.
High officials in the al-Maliki regime asserted repeatedly last fall that it
was Irans intervention with al-Sadr that brought about the unilateral
ceasefire of Aug. 27, 2007. Sadrs decisions to give up military control
of Basra and Sadr City before his forces were defeated were taken in the context
of Iranian mediation between al-Sadr and the al-Maliki regime.
Irans strategic relationship with al-Sadr accomplished what the US military
never believed would be possible even in its most optimistic scenario
the neutralization of the most potent political-military threat to the regimes
stability. The ability of Iran to deliver that benefit to al-Maliki as
part of a broader shift to an anti-occupation regime policy almost certainly
strengthened the case that Iran made to al-Maliki for a demand for a timetable
for US troop withdrawal in the status of forces negotiations.
Kahl is sympathetic to the official US concerns about al-Maliki. Both Kahl
and CNAS have called for negotiation of a US military presence in Iraq going
well beyond the 2010 deadline for complete US withdrawal that al-Maliki has
put forward publicly.
In an unpublished paper for CNAS last April, Kahl advocated that the US should
keep 60,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq into late 2010 in what he called a "sustainable
Despite the change in the power situation, Kahl and CNAS still takes the position
that Iraq needs long-term US support so badly that the Bush administration should
use its leverage to get the al-Maliki regime to make the political accommodations
necessary to achieve longer-term stability in the country. For example, the
Iraq governments need for US help in recovering illegally exported funds
and properties, which were included in the statement of principles governing
the negotiations last November at Iraqi insistence.
Then there is the threat of immediate troop withdrawal if al-Maliki does not
toe the line. Kahl said he was told in Iraq that, in one of the regular videoconferences
Bush holds with al-Maliki, he said, "If the negotiations crash and burn,
I will be forced to pull out all US troops by Jan. 1."
That Bush threat "got al-Maliki's attention," Kahl believes. He advocates
the use of such threats to force al-Maliki to accommodate the interests of the
Sunnis as well as those of the Sadrists, in order to bring them fully into the
political system. Otherwise, Kahl argues, the security gains of 2007 and 2008
will ultimately be reversed.
Al-Maliki is no longer dependent on Washington as he was a year or two ago.
That major shift in power relations now reluctantly acknowledged by the
Bush administration has brought into sharper relief the contradictions
between the interests of the Iraqi government and those of the administration.
The al-Maliki regime is a Shiite-dominated government that views its Sunni
Arab neighbors who have generally opposed Shiite rule in Iraq with
intense distrust and looks to Iran for support against them. The Bush administration,
on the other hand, has forged closer relations with Sunni regimes against Iran.
The short-term Shiite dependence on the US occupation to establish Shiite control
of the state apparatus is giving way to a more fundamental distrust toward US
power in Iraq and the region.