'Pushover' Maliki stands his ground
WASHINGTON - Many official and unofficial proponents of a long-term United States military presence in Iraq are dismissing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's demand for a US timeline for withdrawal as political posturing, assuming that he will abandon it under pressure.
But that demand was foreshadowed by an episode in June 2006 in which Maliki circulated a draft policy calling for negotiation of just such a withdrawal timetable and the George W Bush administration had to intervene to force the prime minister to drop it.
The context of Maliki's earlier advocacy of a timetable for withdrawal was the serious Iraqi effort to negotiate an agreement with seven major Sunni armed groups that had begun under his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari in early 2006. The main Sunni demand in those talks had been for a timetable for full withdrawal of US troops.
Under the spur of those negotiations, Jaafari and Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaei had developed a plan for taking over security in all 18 provinces of Iraq from the US by the end of 2007. During his first week as prime minister in late May, Maliki referred twice publicly to that plan.
At the same time, Maliki began working on a draft "national reconciliation plan", which was in effect a road map to final agreement with the Sunni armed groups. The Sunday Times of London, which obtained a copy of the draft, reported on June 23, 2006, that it included the following language:
We must agree on a time schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq, while at the same time building up the Iraqi forces that will guarantee Iraqi security, and this must be supported by a United Nations Security Council decision.That formula, linking a withdrawal timetable with the buildup of Iraqi forces, was consistent with the position taken by Sunni armed groups in their previous talks with US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, which was that the timetable for withdrawal would be "linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild Iraq's armed forces and security services". One of the Sunni commanders who had negotiated with Khalilzad described the resistance position in those words to the London-based Arabic-language Alsharq al-Awsat in May 2006.
The Iraqi government draft was already completed when Bush arrived in Baghdad on June 13 without any previous consultation with Maliki, giving the Iraqi leader five minutes' notice that Bush would be meeting him in person rather than by video conference.
The Maliki cabinet sought to persuade Bush to go along with the withdrawal provision of the document. In his press conference on returning, Bush conceded that Iraqi cabinet members in the meeting had repeatedly brought up the issue of reconciliation with Sunni insurgents.
In fact, after Bush had left, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, said he had asked Bush to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces. Then President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, released a statement of support for that request.
Nevertheless, Bush signaled his rejection of the Iraqi initiative in his June 14 press conference, deceitfully attributing his own rejection of a timetable to the Iraqi government. "And the willingness of some to say that if we're in power we'll withdraw on a set timetable concerns people in Iraq," Bush declared.
When the final version of the plan was released to the public on June 25, the offending withdrawal timetable provision had disappeared. Bush was insisting that the Maliki government embrace the idea of a "conditions-based" US troop withdrawal. Khalilzad gave an interview with Newsweek the week the final reconciliation plan was made public in which he referred to a "conditions-driven roadmap".
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius further revealed in a June 28 column that Khalilzad had told him that General George Casey, then commander of the Multi-National Force - Iraq, was going to meet with Maliki about the formation of a "joint US-Iraqi committee" to decide on "the conditions related to a road map for an ultimate withdrawal of US troops". Thus Maliki was being forced to agree to a negotiating body that symbolized a humiliating dictation by the occupying power to a client government.
The heavy pressure that had obviously been applied to Maliki on the issue during and after the Bush visit was resented by Maliki and Rubaie. The Iraqi rancor over that pressure was evident in the op-ed piece by Rubaei published in the Washington Post a week after Bush's visit.
Although the article did not refer directly to Maliki's reconciliation plan and its offer to negotiate a timetable for withdrawal, the very first line implied that the issue was uppermost in the Iraqi prime minister's mind. "There has been much talk about a withdrawal of US and coalition troops from Iraq," wrote Rubaie, "but no defined timeline has yet been set".
Rubaei declared "Iraq's ambition to have full control of the country by the end of 2008". Although few readers understood the import of that statement, it was an indication that the Maliki government was prepared to negotiate complete withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2008.
Then the national security adviser indicated that the government already had its own targets for the first two phases of foreign troop withdrawal: withdrawal of more than 30,000 troops to under 100,000 foreign troops by the end of 2006 and withdrawal of "most of the remaining troops" - that is, to less than 50,000 troops - by end of the 2007.
The author explained why the "removal" of foreign troops was so important to the Iraqi government: it would "remove psychological barriers and the reason that many Iraqis joined the resistance in the first place"; it would also "allow the Iraqi government to engage with some of our neighbors that have to date been at the very least sympathetic to the resistance ..." Finally, Rubaie asserted, it would "legitimize the Iraqi government in the eyes of its own people".
He also took a carefully-worded shot at the Bush administration's actions in overruling the centerpiece of Iraq's reconciliation policy. "While Iraq is trying to gain independence from the United States," he wrote, "some influential foreign figures" were still "trying to spoon-feed our government and take a very proactive role in many key decisions".
The 2006 episode left a lasting imprint on both the Bush and Maliki regimes, which is still very much in evidence in the present conflict over a withdrawal timetable. The Bush White House continues to act as though it is confident that Maliki can be pressured to back down as he was forced to do before. And at least some of Maliki's determination to stand up to Bush in 2008 is related to the bitterness that he and Rubaie, among others, still feel over the way Bush humiliated them in 2006.
It appears that Bush is making the usual dominant power mistake in relations to Maliki. He may have been a pushover in mid-2006, but the circumstances have changed, in Iraq, in US-Iraq-Iran relations and in the United States. The Maliki regime now has much greater purchase to defy Bush than it had two years ago.
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.