WASHINGTON - Instead of moving toward accommodating the demand of Iraqi Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki for a timetable for United States military withdrawal,
the George W Bush administration and the US military leadership are continuing
to pressure their erstwhile client regime to bow to the US demand for a
long-term military presence in the country.
The emergence of this defiant US posture toward the Iraqi withdrawal demand
underlines just how important long-term access to military bases in Iraq has
become to the US military and national security bureaucracy in general.
From the beginning, the Bush administration's response to the
Maliki withdrawal demand has been to treat it as a mere aspiration that the US
need not accept.
The counter-message that has been conveyed to Iraq from a multiplicity of US
sources, including former Central Command (CENTCOM) commander William Fallon,
is that the security objectives of Iraq must include continued dependence on US
troops for an indefinite period. The larger, implicit message, however, is that
the US is still in control, and that it - not the Iraqi government - will make
the final decision.
That point was made initially by State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos,
who stated flatly on July 9 that any US decision on withdrawal "will be
In a sign that the US military is also mounting pressure on the Iraqi
government to abandon its withdrawal demand, Fallon wrote an op-ed piece
published in the New York Times on July 20 that called on Iraqi leaders to
accept the US demand for long-term access to military bases.
Fallon, who became something of a folk hero among foes of the Bush
administration's policy in the Middle East for having been forced out of his
CENTCOM position for his anti-aggression stance, takes an extremely aggressive
line against the Iraqi withdrawal demand in the op-ed. The piece is remarkable
not only for its condescending attitude toward the Iraqi government, but for
its peremptory tone toward it.
Fallon is dismissive of the idea that Iraq can take care of itself without US
troops to maintain ultimate control. "The government of Iraq is eager to exert
its sovereignty," Fallon writes, "but its leaders also recognize that it will
be some time before Iraq can take full control of security."
Fallon insists that "the government of Iraq must recognize its continued, if
diminishing reliance on the American military". And in the penultimate
paragraph he demands "political posturing in pursuit of short-term gains must
Fallon, now retired from the military, is obviously serving as a stand-in for
US military chiefs for whom the public expression of such a hardline stance
against the Iraqi withdrawal demand would have been considered inappropriate.
But the former US military proconsul in the Middle East, like his active-duty
colleagues, appears to actually believe that the US can intimidate the Maliki
government. The assumption implicit in his op-ed is that the US has both the
right and power to preempt Iraq's national interests to continue to build its
military empire in the Middle East.
As CENTCOM chief, Fallon had been planning on the assumption that the US
military would continue to have access to military bases in both Iraq and
Afghanistan for many years to come. A July 14 story by Washington Post national
security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus said that the army had
requested US$184 million to build power plants at its five main bases in Iraq.
The five bases, Pincus reported, are among the "final bases and support
locations where troops, aircraft and equipment will be consolidated as the US
military presence is reduced".
Funding for the power plants, which would be necessary to support a large US
force in Iraq within the five remaining bases, for a longer-term stay, was
eliminated from the military construction bill for fiscal year 2008. Pincus
quoted a congressional source as noting that the power plants would have taken
up to two years to complete.
The plan to keep several major bases in Iraq is just part of a larger plan, on
which Fallon himself was working, for permanent US land bases in the Middle
East and Central Asia.
Fallon revealed in congressional testimony last year that Bagram air base in
Afghanistan is regarded as "the centerpiece for the CENTCOM master plan for
future access to and operations in Central Asia".
As Fallon was writing his op-ed, the Bush administration was planning for a
video conference between Bush and Maliki, evidently hoping to move the
obstreperous Maliki away from his position on withdrawal. Afterward, however,
the White House found it necessary to cover up the fact that Maliki had refused
to back down in the face of Bush's pressure.
It issued a statement claiming that the two leaders had agreed to "a general
time horizon for meeting aspirational goals" but that the goals would include
turning over more control to Iraqi security forces and the "further reduction
of US combat forces from Iraq" - but not a complete withdrawal.
But that was quickly revealed to be a blatant misrepresentation of Maliki's
position. As Maliki's spokesman Ali Dabbagh confirmed, the "time horizon" on
which Bush and Maliki had agreed not only covered the "full handover of
security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American
forces" but was to "allow for its [sic] withdrawal from Iraq".
An adviser to Maliki, Sadiq Rikabi, also told the Washington Post that Maliki
was insisting on specific timelines for each stage of the US withdrawal,
including the complete withdrawal of troops.
The Iraqi prime minister's July 19 interview with the German magazine Der
Speigel, in which he said that Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack
Obama's 16-month timetable "would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with
the possibility of slight changes", was the Iraqi government's bombshell in
response to the Bush administration's efforts to pressure it on the bases
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack emphasized at his briefing on Tuesday
that the issue would be determined by "a conclusion that's mutually acceptable
to sovereign nations".
That strongly implied that the Bush administration regarded itself as having a
veto power over any demand for withdrawal and signals an intention to try to
Both the Bush administration and the US military appear to harbor the illusion
that the US troop presence in Iraq still confers effective political control
over its clients in Baghdad.
However, the change in the Maliki regime's behavior over the past six months,
starting with the prime minister's abrupt refusal to go along with General
David Petraeus' plan for a joint operation in the southern city of Basra in
mid-March, strongly suggests that the era of Iraqi dependence on the US has
Given the strong consensus on the issue among Shi'ite political forces of all
stripes, as well as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shi'ite spiritual leader, the
Maliki administration could not back down to US pressure without igniting a
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.