Two Shia nightmares
Why does Al-Maliki really want a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq? Salah Hemeid tries to figure it out
The July deadline for Iraq and the United States to sign a security agreement for the long-term status of US troops in Iraq is stumbling to a close. Officials of both the Bush administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's government are now admitting that meeting a deadline that would allow Iraq to restore full sovereignty is farfetched.
On Sunday The Washington Post reported that the United States and Iraq have abandoned efforts to conclude the deal before the end of the presidency of George W Bush. Citing unnamed senior US officials, the newspaper said the decision effectively leaves talks over an extended US military presence in Iraq to the next administration.
In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by 31 July, the two governments are now working on a "bridge" document that would allow basic US military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a UN mandate at the end of the year. The influential paper said the failure of months of negotiations is being blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept US terms and the complexity of the task.
The disclosure came in the heat of repeated hardline statements by Al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials that they want a clear timetable for the full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq as a precondition for signing the security agreement. Al-Maliki first floated the idea last week during a visit to the United Arab Emirates when he said that his government's approach in the current negotiation was for signing a memorandum of understanding for withdrawal.
Later his national security adviser Muwaffaq Al-Rubaie went a step further, saying Baghdad would not accept any deal with the United States unless it included dates for the withdrawal of foreign forces, only to revoke it later by saying the current talks were focussed on agreeing on "timeline horizons, not specific dates", and that withdrawal would depend on the readiness of the Iraqi security forces.
Last month and during a visit to Jordan, Al-Maliki said that negotiations with the United States on the long-term security pact were deadlocked because of concern that the deal infringes Iraqi sovereignty. "We have reached an impasse, because when we opened these negotiations we did not realise that the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty and this is something we can never accept," he said. However, his Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari contradicted him saying that talks were in progress and a deal could still be reached by the end of July.
These contradictory statements raised questions about the actual position of the Iraqi leaders and if they are really as steadfast as they appear in calling for a withdrawal date or whether they are just manoeuvring. Many observers argue that Iraqi forces are not yet in a position to stand on their own against the two major challenges they face -- Al-Qaeda and other Sunni groups, and the Shia Mahdi Army which were partly suppressed in fierce battles this spring in Basra, Al-Amarah and Baghdad. Both groups could simply resurface afterwards to challenge the government once the Americans withdraw.
So does Al-Maliki really want a timetable, and if so why, knowing that Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline? While some observers believe that the remarks reflect confusion inside Al-Maliki's government, citing either ambiguity or contradictory statements, others believe that the mixed messages are intentionally being made because Al-Maliki and his Shia coalition are trying to use the negotiations to strike a better deal that will still keep them in power after signing the agreement.
On the one hand, Shia leaders look beyond the media reports that the pact will give them the US support they need for military operations against the militias, and fear that a long-term American presence would be a problem rather than a solution. The hardening of their position could actually reflect concern that the longer the Americans stay, the less the Shias will be able to consolidate their hold and assert their power in the face of the continuing Sunni challenge to their supremacy.
Shias seem to fear that with a new, most likely Democratic administration in Washington next year, a new course will be taken in Iraq that will eventually help to empower Sunnis at their expense. The cause of their concern stems from their analysis that the sooner the Americans leave Iraq the better, and they should not make any move that will put their current long-awaited empowerment in jeopardy. Nothing can explain their agenda better than what Shia Interior Minister Jawad Al-Bolani wrote in an article in Asharq Al-Awsat: "Shia Arabs are with it [an agreement] publicly but against it secretly."
Indeed, the Iraqi Shias are just trying to avoid the Japanese example where an agreement for a prolonged military presence in Japan after WWII coincided with a new Republican- dominated Congress that forced president Truman to take a new approach in the occupied Asian nation. In order to block a communist and leftist resurgence in Japan the American occupation administration of General Macarthur halted the purge of the followers of the pre-war regime and brought thousands of them back to the government bureaucracy.
That approach, which was the brainchild of George Kennan, the well-known American diplomat, historian and strategist and part of his global containment policy against the Soviet- led Communist bloc, changed Japan probably for ever by reinstalling the old political class and prevent the emergence of an anti-American leftist movement, making Japan a bulwark in the Cold War against Communism.
If Al-Maliki and other Shia politicians have any motive behind procrastination it is to avoid the Japanese situation where a prolonged American presence will allow more Sunnis to rejoin the army, police and government bureaucracy, thus weakening their grip on power. In the Iraqi case the Shia-led government will be forced to completely abandon the de- Baathification law and Iran will become the "Communism threat", two nightmares for Iraqi Shia leaders.
While watching closely the US election campaign and clashes between the two presidential hopefuls over the future of the American presence in their country, Iraqi Shia leaders are refining a strategy that will eventually either make the Americans leave or stay a bit longer, but in all cases never to make their presence permanent. This is why Al-Maliki keeps calling for a well-defined timetable for withdrawal of US troops in any agreement under discussion.