The Bells Ring for George Bush

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sara Maasumi

The time for an end to political deals between the Iraqi government and the United States is gradually arriving. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister and the number one in the government who has remained in power so far thanks to the US support, has become a fickle these days. Until a few months ago, whenever Maliki was under severe domestic criticisms and international pressures, he launched an hour-long video conference with George Bush to get his authorization to carry on; but today the situation between the two countries has changed.   

Maliki who in the beginning of his office as prime minister was accused by many of negligence towards Iraq’s national interests has now found such a strong base among Iraqi statesmen that voices open opposition to a proposed Baghdad-Washington security pact and even demands a deadline for withdrawal of alien troops from Iraq. It was two months ago that Maliki’s relative success in fighting against the armed paramilitary forces in Sadr Township in the capital city as well as other sensitive points in Iraq gave him a wining green card which has won him a stable place as a powerful prime minister to the extent that he now puts up resistance to the White House demands and speaks of the independence of the army.

This has all of a sudden shattered the dreams of the United States for a long-term military presence in Iraq. Maliki’s explicit demand from the US to decide a timetable for troop withdrawal reminds the Americans of one bitter reality: The Iraqi government wants to show off its military independence to the US.

Until a year ago, whenever the opponents of the Iraqi war in the United States put pressure on Bush to come up with a timetable, it was Maliki who rejected the call by saying that the US must fulfill its commitment in Iraq before any pull-back. But the security developments over the past few months seem to have changed everything.

These days, the government of Nouri al-Maliki enjoys the support of two spectrums of the Iraqi Shiites. In addition to Dawa Party of which Maliki is a member, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) is also behind the central government. After being in power in Iraq for two years, Maliki is now well aware that he would be unable to proceed without the support of the Shiites. However, the Shiites in Iraq are staunch opponents of the long-term US military presence and are pressuring the Iraqi government on a timetable for their withdrawal.    

Ayatollah Sistani, a prominent Shia religious leader who enjoys great influence among the Iraqis, has time and again voiced open opposition to continued presence of the occupiers. The Iraqi prime minister’s security advisor too, immediately after meeting with Ayatollah Sistani, confirmed that Maliki had called for a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Earlier, Washington did not have much trust in lasting support for the central government by the Dawa Party and SIIC. Perhaps for the same reason, Washington did its best in 2005 and 2006 to weaken the positions of these two parties at the interior ministry and the Iraqi army. In 2007, the White House leaders assumed that their efforts over the past couple of years to sideline the common enemy of the White House and the Iraqi central government, namely the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada Sadr have borne fruit.

For the same reason, SIIC leader Abdulaziz Hakim was invited to Washington and was received by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the White House. The extent of cooperation between Baghdad and Washington in suppressing Al-Mahdi army was so high that when the Iraqi central government claimed at the end of 2007 that Sadr has reduced his attacks on the orders of Iran, Washington easily believed this claim. In an unexpected move, Sadr signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in August 2007.

In November 2007, Bush and Maliki reached agreement on the principles of a deal on deployment of American troops in Iraq as well as bilateral cooperation. According to the agreement, the US offered some security guarantees to the Iraqi government. In February 2008, the Iraqi army in cooperation with American and British troops began to expel Mahdi army troops from Basra.

On March 7, 2008 when the US draft security agreement landed on Maliki’s desk, the stance of the Iraqi prime minister vis-à-vis Washington began to change little by little. The first sign of Maliki’s distrust in the Americans was demonstrated when he suddenly decided to take over Basra without intervention of American soldiers. Some time later and in a bid to check rumors on the Iraqi army’s independent action, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus announced that a number of military advisors from the American army had assisted the Iraqi soldiers. He said the reason that American troops did not participate in the operations was because they were not familiar with the frontline.

Many experts announced at that time that Iran’s influence over the Shiites in Basra highly contributed to the success of Maliki’s security plan so that the Mahdi army voluntarily handed over the control of the city to the Iraqi army before facing total defeat.   

But the American army intelligence was fully aware of this attack so that the political deals behind the scene reduced its scale and the need for intervention of American troops. A few weeks after the Basra events an American army general in an interview with the New York Times criticized the deal with the paramilitary forces and their mild suppression by the Iraqi government. He said the US army had lost an opportunity in Basra to kill those who deserved death.

In May this year, the government of Maliki once again in a clever move illustrated its opposition with the US policies. Ever since its invasion of Iraq in 2003, whenever faced with the waves of domestic criticisms on US failure to establish security in Iraq, the White House put the blame on Iran and accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. In May too, the White House asked Maliki to openly speak of Iran’s interference in Iraq’s internal affairs which was turned down by the Iraqi prime minister.

At that time, the US accused Iran of spreading its influence among the Shiites opposed to the government in the southern cities of Iraq. In order to have responded to the White House requests, Maliki assigned a fact-finding committee to investigate the allegations against Iran. The fatal blow to Washington came when Maliki dispatched a committee comprising Shia politicians to Tehran for talks with senior Iranian officials. The US expected the Iraqi representatives to censure the Iranian government for what Washington described as Tehran’s intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs, but the Iraqi delegation returned to Baghdad with full hands. The Iranian officials had informed the Iraqi delegation of a special strategy on cooperation of the Iraqi Shias with the government. Immediately after the return of the Iraqi delegation, Maliki used the Iranian proposed strategy. On May 10, Maliki and Sadr reached agreement on the security situation in Sadr Township in the capital where the Mahdi army was stationed. Based on the new agreement, the US army halted its attacks on Mahdi army bases and stopped bombing Sadr Township. According to another part of the agreement, Iraqi forces were allowed to enter Sadr Township provided that no single supporter of Muqtada Sadr would be detained.

The new approach of the Maliki government in keeping the US away from the government’s negotiations with the Shiites continued after the political truce between Sadr and the central government. Maliki also stood up against accepting the US proposed security pact. On May 21, White House officials announced that Iraq was seeking fundamental changes in the text of the security agreement.

The government of Maliki strongly opposed a US request on full access of American army to military bases without any time limit and authorization from the Iraqi army. The White House has demanded grant of political and judicial immunity to all American soldiers and security companies’ contractors in Iraq. The Iraqi government has explicitly rejected this demand on grounds that the unrestrained demands of the White House would cast doubt on Iraq’s independence and territorial integrity. In early June, the central government went further and cast doubt on the continued presence of US soldiers in Iraq. This time Iraqi statesmen were asking each other: Does Iraq really need the presence of the US troops?

The repeated opposition of the Iraqi government with the US demands clearly shows the change of policy of the Shiites in the country. The opponents of the US presence in Iraq have now well realized that the way for liberation of Iraq from under the clutches of the US domination does not pass through military tunnels but that the time had now come for negotiations and resort to diplomatic channels.

The demand by Maliki for the US to set a timetable deadline for withdrawal of its troops from Iraq reveals the fact that the survival of the Bush government in Iraq depends on the internal events in the country. After five years of war in Iraq, the United States must have realized now that if the decision to order a military attack on Iraq was made by the American president the decision on continuation of its military presence in the Middle East would be made by the regional powers who may not be very much in tune with the policies of the White House!


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