How Iran outsmarted the US on Iraq
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's suggestion that the
end of the US troop presence in Iraq was part of a US military success story
ignores the fact that the George W Bush administration and the US military had
planned to maintain a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq.
The real story behind the US withdrawal is how a clever strategy of deception
and diplomacy adopted by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in cooperation with Iran
outmaneuvered Bush and the US military leadership and got the US to sign the
US-Iraq withdrawal agreement.
A central element of the Maliki-Iran strategy was the common interest that
Maliki, Iran and anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr shared in ending the US occupation, despite their differences over
Maliki needed Muqtada's support, which was initially based on Maliki's
commitment to obtain a time schedule for the US troops' withdrawal from Iraq.
In early June 2006, a draft national reconciliation plan that circulated among
Iraqi political groups included agreement on "a time schedule to pull out the
troops from Iraq" along with the build-up of Iraqi military forces. But after a
quick trip to Baghdad, Bush rejected the idea of a withdrawal timetable.
Maliki's national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie revealed in a Washington
Post op-ed that Maliki wanted foreign troops reduced by more than 30,000 to
under 100,000 by the end of 2006 and withdrawal of "most of the remaining
troops" by end of the 2007.
When the full text of the reconciliation plan was published on June 25, 2006,
however, the commitment to a withdrawal timetable was missing.
In June 2007, senior Bush administration officials began leaking to reporters
plans for maintaining what The New York Times described as "a near-permanent
presence" in Iraq, which would involve control of four major bases.
Maliki immediately sent Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to Washington to dangle
the bait of an agreement on troops before then-vice president Dick Cheney.
As recounted in Linda Robinson's Tell Me How This Ends, Zebari urged
Cheney to begin negotiating the US military presence in order to reduce the
odds of an abrupt withdrawal that would play into the hands of the Iranians.
In a meeting with then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in September 2007,
Rubaie said Maliki wanted a "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) that would
allow US forces to remain but would "eliminate the irritants that are apparent
violations of Iraqi sovereignty", according Bob Woodward's The War Within.
Maliki's national security adviser was also seeking to protect the Mahdi Army
from US military plans to target it for major attacks. Meeting Bush's
coordinator for the Iraq War, Douglas Lute, Rubaie said it was better for Iraqi
security forces to take on Muqtada's militias than for US Special Forces to do
He explained to the Baker-Hamilton Commission that Muqtada's use of military
force was not a problem for Maliki, because Muqtada was still part of the
Publicly, the Maliki government continued to assure the Bush administration it
could count on a long-term military presence. Asked by NBC's Richard Engel on
January 24, 2008, if the agreement would provide long-term US bases in Iraq,
Zebari said, "This is an agreement of enduring military support. The soldiers
are going to have to stay someplace. They can't stay in the air."
Confident that it was going to get a South Korea-style SOFA, the Bush
administration gave the Iraqi government a draft on March 7, 2008 that provided
for no limit on the number of US troops or the duration of their presence. Nor
did it give Iraq any control over US military operations.
But Maliki had a surprise in store for Washington.
A series of dramatic moves by Maliki and Iran over the next few months showed
that there had been an explicit understanding between the two governments to
prevent the US military from launching major operations against the Mahdi Army
and to reach an agreement with Muqtada on ending the Mahdi Army's role in
return for assurances that Maliki would demand the complete withdrawal of US
In mid-March 2007, Maliki ignored pressure from a personal visit by Cheney to
cooperate in taking down the Mahdi Army and instead abruptly vetoed US military
plans for a major operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra. Maliki ordered an
Iraqi army assault on the dug-in Sadrist forces.
Predictably, the operation ran into trouble, and within days, Iraqi officials
had asked General Suleimani to intervene and negotiate a ceasefire with
Muqtada, who agreed, although his troops were far from defeated.
A few weeks later, Maliki again prevented the United States from launching its
biggest campaign yet against the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. And again, Suleimani
was brought in to work out a deal with Sadr allowing government troops to
patrol in the former Mahdi Army stronghold.
There was subtext to Suleimani's interventions. Just as Suleimani was
negotiating the Basra ceasefire with Muqtada, a website associated with former
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai said Iran opposed
actions by "hardline clans" that "only weaken the government and people of Iraq
and give a pretext to its occupiers".
In the days that followed that agreement, Iranian state news media portrayed
the Iraqi crackdown in Basra as being against illegal and "criminal" forces.
The timing of each political diplomatic move by Maliki appears to have been
determined in discussions between Maliki and top Iranian officials.
Just two days after returning from a visit to Tehran in June 2008, Maliki
complained publicly about US demands for indefinite access to military bases,
control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for US troops and
In July, he revealed that his government was demanding the complete withdrawal
of US troops on a timetable.
The Bush administration was in a state of shock. From July to October, it
pretended that it could simply refuse to accept the withdrawal demand, while
trying vainly to pressure Maliki to back down.
In the end, however, Bush administration officials realized that Democratic
presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was then far ahead of Republican John
McCain in polls, would accept the same or an even faster timetable for
withdrawal. In October, Bush decided to sign the draft agreement pledging
withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2011.
The ambitious plans of the US military to use Iraq to dominate the Middle East
militarily and politically had been foiled by the very regime the United States
had installed, and the officials behind the US scheme, had been clueless about
what was happening until it was too late.
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.