Whether America withdraws from Iraq and the timing of that withdrawal may be decided by Iraqi politics and Iranian mullahs rather than by the next US president. If so, the Iraq issue might be taken off the presidential campaign’s front burner.
On July 7, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told Arab leaders in Abu Dhabi that his government was “…looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty.” His words were driven by shifting domestic politics that demand the pending US troop deal have a withdrawal timetable.
America’s continued presence in Iraq is a hot political issue for Maliki who hopes to remain in power, perhaps by restoring at least the appearance of Iraqi sovereignty. With provincial elections scheduled for this October, it’s possible that disenfranchised Iraqis, particularly minority Sunnis, will join the political process and grab power from the ruling Shia. That possibility has compelled Maliki to assert his leadership and get tough with Washington.
For six months, American and Iraqi officials have been negotiating an agreement to provide the legal authority for US troops to remain in Iraq once the United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year. The Maliki government is insisting on a narrow and short-term agreement rather than the longer-term security arrangement sought by Washington.
Most significantly, Baghdad now demands that the pact indicate when the Americans will leave.
On July 8, Iraq’s national security adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie stated, “We will not accept a memorandum of understanding without having timeline horizons for the cessation of combat operations as well as the departure of all the combat brigades.” His government has not announced how quickly it wants the US to withdraw. US ground commanders indicated (for the first time publicly last week) that the US position continues to be that setting dates is unwise and that events should drive the withdrawal.
The Bush administration’s policy is that it would honor Iraq’s wishes. “It’s their government’s choice,” President Bush said in May 2007. “If they were to say, leave, we would leave.” But Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, denied that withdrawal dates are part of the current talks and added, “We have great confidence that the political leadership in Iraq would not take an action that would destabilize the country.”
The key to Iraqi stability is the country’s ability to secure itself. “As the Iraqi security forces get stronger and get better, then we will be able to continue drawing down our troops in the future,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently. The US has 146,000 troops in Iraq, down from a peak last year of nearly 170,000.
But Gates’ timeline may not correspond with Iraq’s, just as Gates’ confidence in Iraq’s stability may not correspond with Maliki’s. The prime minister has reason to be confident because Iraq’s security forces have improved and his nation’s troops are assuming more responsibility in that process.
The number of attacks in Baghdad has fallen from 740 in April to 116 in June, according to the US military command. This is attributable to three factors: improved Iraqi security forces, the apparent defeat of al Qaeda, and the suppression of militia groups.
Baghdad has security control for nine of eighteen provinces and Iraq’s military and police forces have grown in the past year from 444,000 to 566,000. Even so, US officers estimate that only 10 percent of Iraqi security forces can operate independent of American assistance.
Al Qaeda terrorists, the heart of the five year insurgency, have been virtually defeated across the country and that is good news. Iraqi forces have also been effective against militia groups in Basra and Baghdad.
In spite of Maliki’s optimism and some security successes, Iraq has a long way to go before it is prepared to assume full responsibility for its security. US Army Lt. Gen James Dubik who led the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq believes the Iraqis may not be self-sufficient until 2012.
Security aside, domestic politics have become the primary motivator for Maliki’s call for America to accept a withdrawal timetable. His withdrawal demand has two political objectives: demonstrate that he is independent from the US – not an American puppet - and second, to undercut his chief rival, the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who successfully fost ered anti-American sentiment.
Maliki may achieve both objectives by acting tough with the Americans, especially as the nation elects provincial leaders this fall. Demanding that any agreement with the US include a withdrawal plan should satisfy the 72 percent of Iraqis who, according to a March 2008 poll, oppose the presence of US forces.
The prime minister must also be responsive to the very powerful clergy because politics and religion are inseparable in the Shia-dominated country. On October 8, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite religious leader, said his country will not accept a security deal which may justify the illegal presence of US troops.
Finally, Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics may affect the longevity of the US presence.
Tehran has enlisted two contrary proxies to help remove the Americans, while keeping Maliki and the Shiites in power: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and al-Sadr’s movement. The ISCI, the former Badr Brigade, was exiled to Tehran during Saddam Hussein’s rule but today it has returned to Iraq, where it represents that country’s well-heeled, Iraqi political mainstream.
The ISCI is part of the Maliki government and a powerful minority in the Council of Representatives (parliament). Its leaders, some of whom are government ministers, maintain close associations with the clerical and elected leaders who hold most of the power in Tehran. They are the antithesis of Sadr’s movement.
Sadr’s Mehdi (messiah) Army represents the poor, disenfranchised Shia. But with Tehran’s help the organization is evolving into an Iraqi Hizballah-like organization that will allegedly shun violence and focus on politics and social service. The Mehdi’s fighting arm has supposedly become a separate organization.
Tehran’s influence over the ISCI and the Sadrites means it wields considerable power inside Iraq. While the groups may battle each other for control of the Shia majority, at the end of the day they will accomplish Tehran’s objectives – Shia control and Americans kicked out.
Whatever Maliki’s motivation for insisting on a withdrawal date, it’s Iraq’s sovereign right to decline further outside help. Except for the looming threat of Iranian meddling, America should celebrate that the democratic process within Iraq appears to be working.
An agreement that requires the US to leave Iraq might put this contentious issue on the presidential campaign’s back burner and force the candidates to debate emerging, rather than resolved crises.