Friday, July 11, 2008

Why Maliki Suddenly Wants A US Withdrawal From Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie made headlines recently by calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq.

This represents a 180 degree turnaround from their previous position:

Speaking to reporters in the holy city of Najaf, -Mowaffak al-Rubaie declined to provide specific dates but said his government was "impatiently waiting" for the complete withdrawal of US troops.

"There should not be any permanent bases in Iraq unless these bases are under Iraqi control," Mr Rubaie said. "We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the US] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the foreign troops' withdrawal from Iraq."

On Monday Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, issued a statement saying that his government was inclined to sign a memorandum of understanding with the US that included a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops.

Mr Rubaie spoke to reporters after briefing Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia religious leader.

The tipoff on exactly how much things have changed is the reference to downgrading the US/Iraq security agreements of late 2007 to a 'memorandum of understanding.'

In other words, Dubbya, a deal ain't a deal until we say it is...and even that's subject to change in our part of the souk, ferenghi.

As you know, I saw this coming some time ago. I don't work for the State Department, but I do have a certain familiarity about the way the Arab mind works and how things go in this part of the world. It's not about what you did for me before, or even what you've done for me lately, but what are you going to be able to do for me in the future, chief?

The funny thing is that with all the exposure Bush has had to the ways of our eternal friends the Saudis, you'd think he'd know that too.

What happened, essentially is that Maliki and Rubaie can read the writing on the wall.

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. Notice that Rubaie tossed his little bomb about being impatient for the Americans to skeedaddle after talking with Sistani.

In other words, the Shi'ites pretty much want to make sure that the Sunnis and Kurds remain marginal, no matter what.

That pressure was underlined by the Mullahs during that little trip Maliki made to Iran a few weeks ago.

What they told Maliki was probably something like this - you can be a friend of the Americans, or a friend of ours but you can't be both..and if you give the Americans a base in Iraq, then as far as we're concerned, you've made that decision. They also likely reminded Maliki that the Americans could be gone any time, especially if there's a President Obama and a Democrat controlled Congress, but Iran isn't going anywhere no matter who's running the Great Satan. They'll be right next door regardless.

Now that Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army have been neutralized, Maliki is in a much more secure position and likely feels he no longer needs a massive US troop presence to secure his government, so he can afford to play hardball and ask the Americans for even more. It's the old bazaari tactic of playing both ends against the middle - "The Iranians say they're willing to give me this..would you care to up your offer to make it worth my while to defy them?"

In doing this, Maliki probably has made a couple of classic mistakes. First of all, he may be pricing himself out of the market, especially given the political climate today in America, and that could come back to haunt him. In rushing to get rid of one foreign presence, Maliki may simply be making an exchange for an even worse master, and cutting the ground out from underneath him and his government. Lebanon is a good example of the way the Mullahs play this particular game, and with the Americans gone, if Maliki is insufficiently pliant and submissive he's history.

As in six feet under.

Second, while he may feel he has to take Iran and the pro-Iranian factions in his government into account, the Americans could likely care less. If Maliki and the Shi'ite factions of his government renege on their earlier agreement to provide the US with bases there, the Americans will simply declare victory and leave. Just like the Iranians did, I'm pretty sure the Americans probably told Maliki that he can be a friend and ally of the US or of Iran, but not both.

Another thing Maliki may not be considering is the effect of an American withdrawal on the Sunnis and Kurds. Both factions consider the Americans the guarantor of their rights in the Iraqi federation, and an American withdrawal might just spark the need to be out from under the Shi'ites collective thumb that's been smoldering since the fall of Saddam..especially among the Kurds.

Maliki can still pull back from the brink if he wants to avoid risking this, but he's going to have to make some hard decisions very soon. Anyway, at this stage of the game things are very much in play.

UPDATE: It's surfaced that there was a `mistranslation' and that Maliki himself never used the word 'withdrawal' and is now blaming his office staff for the 'error'..although nobody is disavowing Rubaie's statement. Translation? Just as I said, Maliki is bargaining back and forth, trying to see what the Americans will offer him for a base to make it worth the while to tick off Iran and the Shi'ite factions that want us out if there.

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