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
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
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
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
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.