US wins early round over Iraq
DAMASCUS - Following his cabinet's approval of a draft Status of Forces agreement with the United States regulating the US presence in Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has the hardest sell of all to convince Iraqis the pact is in their "best interests". Deep down, though, and with Iran looking over his shoulder, he could well be banking on parliament rejecting the pact.
On Sunday, 38 ministers, including Maliki and his two deputies, finally signed the controversial draft security arrangement with the US. In essence, it says that the 152,000 US troops will withdraw from cities and towns throughout Iraq by June 30, 2009, and pull out completely from the war-torn country by December 31, 2011. Parliament will vote next week to either accept or reject the pact - it cannot make any changes.
President Jalal Talabani had tried, via US ambassador Ryan Crocker, at the last minute to get President George W Bush to make further amendments to the draft so that he could present it to the Iraqi people "with head help up high", to no avail. After already making some concessions, Bush was seemingly satisfied with the text and is determined to sign off on it before his term expires in January.
Apparently, Maliki only accepted the current draft after emphasizing full withdrawal by 2011 and making sure that US soldiers will not be immune to Iraqi law if they commit crimes on Iraqi territory. The full text of the agreement has not been published, but the general parameters include a 10-year mandate for the US to guarantee the security of Iraq, in exchange for the right to use Iraqi land, waters and skies to base and train troops and store military equipment. In addition to 50 US bases, the deal calls for long-term American supervision of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Defense.
This gives the Americans the almost exclusive right to rebuild Iraq, train its forces and maintain personnel on Iraqi territory. It gives the US the right to arrest or persecute any Iraqi working against its interests, within Iraq, and pledges to protect Iraq from any war, coup or revolution. It also gives the US control of Iraqi airspace.
Deputy Prime Minister Barhan Saleh said the Americans had threatened to freeze no less than US$50 billion worth of Iraqi hard currency, and keep all of its monetary debts to the US if an agreement was not signed before December, the date that the United Nations mandate for the American presence in Iraq expires.
Most Iraqis - both Sunni and Shi'ite - are vehemently opposed to the pact, as is neighboring Iran. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq called on the Maliki government to think twice before committing Iraq to an agreement that grassroot Iraqis considered "a pact of humiliation".
Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to establish a new militia, called the "Judgement Day", to hamper the implementation of the US pact. After coming to power in 2006, Maliki famously defended himself against accusations of being a US stooge, saying, "I consider myself a friend of the US, but I'm not America's man in Iraq."
He is now trying to sell the agreement - which he did not support from day one - as being in Iraq's best interest. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), he argues, has had an operational defense treaty with the US since 1994, which keeps nearly 2,000 US military personnel on UAE territory. Qatar has had a military agreement with the US since 1992.
Apart from members of his cabinet, few are buying this argument, certainly not the Iranians, who are furious at the Sunday ratification. The Iranians claim the agreement is a direct security threat to the region as a whole, and Iran in particular. Traditional foes like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), and Muqtada, have gone into high gear in recent weeks, pressuring Maliki not to sign.
The first to come out and speak violently against the agreement was the Qom-based Ayatollah Kazem al-Hairi, a very influential cleric in Iraqi domestics, matched only by Sistani. He issued a religious decree - a fatwa - prohibiting ratification of such an agreement long before similar declarations were made in Najaf, the holy Shi'ite city in Iraq.
One Iraqi source who requested to remain anonymous told Asia Times Online, "I never trusted Nuri al-Maliki. I would count my fingers after shaking his hands. Although we have no proof at this stage, it is clear that plenty of money was handsomely distributed last week in Baghdad, to make sure that the entire cabinet - with no exceptions - ratified the agreement draft with the United States. One day this will come out in the classified archives of the US, perhaps 30 years from now."
The pieces of the puzzle have started falling into place, he added, "We now realize why no serious effort was made at getting the resigned ministers from the Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front or the Shi'ite bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr to rejoin the Maliki cabinet. Maliki knew that if they were in office, they surely would have drowned the agreement within the cabinet of ministers."
Many in Iraq simply do not buy the argument that Maliki is a helpless man who simply cannot say "no" to US dictates. And even if he were, they argue that it would have been more honorable for him to step down than chain his country to a long-term agreement with a country that all Iraqis agree is an occupying force.
All attention is now on the 275-seat parliament, which can make or break the security pact. Maliki's United Iraqi Alliance, which holds 128 seats, will likely vote for the agreement. That won't apply to the 44 members of the Accordance Front or the 30 parliamentarians from the Sadr bloc. In what could be a crucial decision, parliament still has to decide on what kind of majority will be needed for the pact to be ratified.
What happened in Iraq on Sunday was basically a war of influence between Iran and the United States. It was a struggle for Iraq. It is unclear, however, whether Maliki said "yes" to the agreement after consulting with Iran, or whether he acted against the will of his Iranian patrons. The latter is highly unlikely, given the prime minister's strong bonds to the Iranians and his strong commitment to Shi'ite nationalism.
Probably the Iranians reasoned it would be better to have Maliki approve the agreement, and then work to drown or hamper it from within the Iraqi system. This would be preferable to having him ejected from power by the Americans and being replaced by someone who would cooperate with Washington and snub the mullahs of Tehran.
At least Maliki has the ability to walk the tightrope between both capitals, and does not work against Iranian interests in Iraq. Maliki and his allies lost a battle with the United States on Sunday. They did not lose the war. The cabinet signing the pact does not mean it will be approved by parliament on November 24, the premier could well be thinking, and it is here that George W Bush's proposed last legacy in Iraq might die.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.