US pushes Iraqi Shi'ites closer to Iran
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The threat by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki this month to reject the United States-Iraq status of forces and
strategic framework agreements was prompted in part by US demands for access to
bases that were unacceptable to a highly nationalistic Iraqi population.
But an equally important factor in the apparent rejection of the agreements by
Iraqi Shi'ite leaders is the absence of a US security guarantee against foreign
aggression in the US proposal.
That issue loomed large for Iraqi Shi'ite officials who have long been nervous
about whether the United States is firmly committed to supporting the survival
of the Shi'ite-dominated regime in Iraq
from plots by Sunni Arab states and Turkey to restore Sunni rule in the
The Maliki regime had demanded that US President George W Bush include a
commitment in the statement principles they signed last November. The text of
the statement included a US pledge to "provide security assurances to the Iraqi
government to deter any external aggression and to ensure the integrity of
But the March 7 US draft of the agreement stated only that "the US and Iraq are
to consult immediately whenever the territorial integrity or political
independence of Iraq is threatened".
This commitment only to consult was clearly unacceptable to the Maliki regime.
While visiting Jordan on June 13, Maliki referred to the abandonment by the US
of its previous commitment to defending the Iraqi government against "foreign
aggression" as "a clear point of disagreement".
The Bush administration has explained the absence of such a security commitment
as related to the fact that it would have required that the agreements be
submitted to the US Senate - something the administration wished to avoid.
From the perspective of the Maliki regime and the Shi'ite political parties
supporting it, however, that refusal has a broader and more sinister
significance. Iraqi Shi'ites interpreted it against a background of Bush
administration efforts to prevent the Shi'ite regime from consolidating power
and the possibility of US collaboration with Sunni Arab regimes to try to
overthrow the regime because of its ties with Iran.
A common factor in this history of the "Sunni option" in Bush administration
policy is the role of former prime minister Iyad Allawi.
The March 7 US draft of the framework agreement antagonized Shi'ite political
leaders and alarmed Iran by using language that seemed clearly intended to give
the United States both access to military bases without time limits and the
freedom to use them to attack Iran.
But the most worrisome feature of the draft to Iraqi Shi'ite officials appears
to have been the absence of a commitment to defend Iraq from foreign
aggression, which had been one of the principles in the outline of the
strategic framework signed by Maliki and Bush in November.
It was a high priority for Shi'ite political leaders because of their concern
about a possible plot by Sunni Arab regimes in the region and Turkey to
overthrow the Shi'ite regime by supporting the Sunni armed groups within the
Fears within the Baghdad regime about such a plot spiked in early June 2007
after an international meeting in Egypt had attacked the Baghdad regime. The
Kurdish President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, a longtime ally of Iran, publicly
accused Arab states of "conniving" against the Maliki regime.
What most alarmed officials of the regime was the attendance at the meeting by
former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who has long been regarded as the
favorite of the Bush administration.
Allawi, a secular Shi'ite who had been a Ba'athist Party activist during the
Saddam Hussein regime, was handpicked by US officials to become interim prime
minister from mid-2004 to May 2005.
The Iraqi regime saw signs that the United States was again promoting Allawi
around the time of the Egyptian conference. Maliki told CBS News correspondent
Lara Logan in May 2007 that he was watching the Iraqi army "very closely"
because "those still loyal to the previous regime may start planning coups".
For Shi'ite leaders, the episode recalled the period in late 2005 and early
2006 when the Bush administration shifted from reliance on the Shi'ites as
allies against the Sunni insurgency to one of toying with peace with the Sunnis
in order to check the power of Shi'ites who were viewed as far too close to
US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim of Afghan descent, initiated a
policy aimed at denying the Shi'ite regime control over police and internal
security organizations. In November 2005, Khalilzad began hinting strongly at a
shift toward a "Sunni strategy". The US Embassy, which had previously tolerated
death squad activities and secret detention and torture of Sunnis by the
Shi'ite Badr Corps, decided to confront prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari
publicly over torture houses being run by Shi'ite officials of the Ministry of
Khalilzad then announced that he was prepared to meet with insurgent leaders
and wanted to "deal with their legitimate concerns", and began referring to the
Sunni insurgents as "nationalists" rather than "anti-Iraqi forces". Khalilzad
then began a series of secret meetings with the insurgents, brokered by none
other than the former Ba'athist Iyad Allawi.
Khalilzad openly criticized the sectarian nature of the Shi'ite parties who
were in power and made no secret of the US hope that Allawi would get enough
votes to play power broker in forming a new government. Even after Allawi's
list did badly in the December elections, Khalilzad repeated his insistence
that sectarian Shi'ites would not be allowed to control the Interior Ministry.
In the end, however, the US Embassy could not prevent the Shi'ite regime from
The US had assuaged Shi'ite suspicions by agreeing in principle to defend the
Iraqi government against foreign aggression. The March 7 US draft, however,
appears to have triggered a shift toward greater distance from the United
States, which implies a move closer to Iran.
The first open expression of criticism of the US draft came from Maliki's own
Da'wa Party at the end of May. Two senior legislators in Maliki's party, Ali
al-Adeeb and Haider al-Abadi, gave interviews on May 31 in which they
complained about US demands for "a free hand" to arrest Iraqis and carry out
military operations, authority for more than 50 long-term military bases, and
insistence on control over Iraqi airspace as well as legal immunity for US
troops, contractors and private security guards.
The Bush administration reacted by blaming Iran for the Shi'ite attack on the
agreement. The New York Times quoted a US official as accusing Iran of
"orchestrating a disinformation campaign to undermine the negotiations",
saying, "This is Iran's playbook."
Iran clearly took advantage of the consternation of its Shi'ite allies in
Baghdad to the March 7 US draft. But the impetus for the Maliki regime's shift
came from the Iraqi Shi'ite sense of vulnerability to threats from its Sunni
neighbors and the equivocal position of the US on the issue of a Shi'ite Iraq.
Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations on the US-Iraq agreement, to
replace the United Nations mandate for Iraq that expires in December, the more
fundamental impact of that equivocal US position is to nudge the Maliki regime
significantly closer to Iran, which can be counted on to provide unequivocal
support against any Sunni regional alliance.
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.