'Pushover' Maliki stands his ground
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Many official and unofficial proponents of a long-term United
States military presence in Iraq are dismissing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri
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 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 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, 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 US by the end of 2007. During his first week as
prime minister in late May, Maliki referred twice publicly to that plan.
At the same time, 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 on June 23, 2006, that it included the following language:
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
on June 13 without any previous consultation with Maliki, giving the Iraqi
leader five minutes' notice that Bush would be meeting him in person rather
than by video conference.
The Maliki cabinet sought to persuade Bush to go along with the withdrawal
provision of the document. In his press conference on returning, Bush conceded
that Iraqi cabinet members in the meeting had repeatedly brought up the issue
of reconciliation with 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 June
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 on June 25, the
offending withdrawal timetable provision had disappeared. Bush was insisting
that the 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
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius further revealed in a June 28 column
that Khalilzad had told him that General George Casey, then commander of the
Multi-National Force - Iraq, was going to meet with 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 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 Maliki on the issue
during and after the Bush visit was resented by Maliki and Rubaie. The Iraqi
rancor over that pressure was evident in the op-ed piece by Rubaei published in
the Washington Post a week after Bush's visit.
Although the article did not refer directly to 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
Rubaie, "but no defined timeline has yet been set".
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 Maliki government 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" - that is, 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, Rubaie
asserted, it would "legitimize the Iraqi government in the eyes of its own
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 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
Maliki can be pressured to back down as he was forced to do before. And at
least some of Maliki's determination to stand up to Bush in 2008 is related to
the bitterness that he and 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
Maliki. He may have been a pushover in mid-2006, but the circumstances have
changed, in Iraq, in US-Iraq-Iran relations and in the United States. The
Maliki regime now has much greater purchase to defy Bush than it had two years
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.