U.S. commanders change; prime minister stronger
Once dependent on U.S. support to keep his job, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated power and is asserting his independence, sharply reducing Washington's influence over the future of Iraq..
Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD — Once dependent on U.S. support to keep his job, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated power and is asserting his independence, sharply reducing Washington's influence over the future of Iraq.
Iraq's police and army now operate virtually on their own, and with Washington's mandate from the United Nations to provide security here expiring in four months, al-Maliki is insisting on imposing severe limits on the long-term U.S. military role, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces from all cities by June 2009.
America's eroded leverage has left Iran, with its burgeoning trade and political ties to its next-door neighbor, in a better position than its longtime enemy to affect Iraqi government policies.
It also means that whichever U.S. presidential candidate is elected — Republican John McCain, who insists on a vaguely defined American victory in Iraq, or Democrat Barack Obama, who has long called for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops — will have less ability to sway Baghdad than did the Bush administration.
"If the next president waits too long, our diminishing leverage will likely disappear altogether, leaving us with two strategic options: Resign ourselves to 'ride the tiger' — that is, accept that we have to simply accept what the Iraqi government does and, at most, mitigate or help buffer the consequences — or jump off the tiger altogether," warned Iraq expert Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security.
The assertion of power by the al-Maliki government has brought an end to the aggressive approach of the United States during its troop buildup last year. At the time, U.S. forces frequently intervened in the country's warfare between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs. They even challenged al-Maliki's Shiite-led government by striking alliances with former Sunni insurgents and arresting Shiite police and army commanders implicated in sectarian violence.
Since enhancing his strength in a successful spring offensive against a rival Shiite militia, al-Maliki has insisted that all U.S. troops leave Iraq by 2011 as part of any bilateral security agreement with the U.S. government, unless Iraq requests otherwise. Shiite officials have given mixed signals on whether they would ask U.S. military advisers to stay on.
During the summer, the prime minister shuttered a joint Iraqi-U.S. government committee and demanded the U.S. military give him jurisdiction over dealings with Sunni-dominated paramilitary units.
U.S. officials here concede that, with al-Maliki distancing himself, their leverage is diminished. Over the course of 2007, active Iraqi army units came to outnumber U.S. troops and started reporting back to al-Maliki directly through newly established regional command centers that bypassed U.S. leadership.
"They have more capability, so they don't have to listen to us as much as they used to," said a U.S. Embassy official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
"We always knew this time would come," added the embassy official, emphasizing that previous preparations to hand over power had been sabotaged by dysfunction in the Iraqi government put in place after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
The shift is rooted largely in al-Maliki's military victory against the radical Mahdi Army militia in the southern port of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City district. The offensive in Basra, launched against the recommendations of the U.S. military, reinvented the prime minister as a decisive commander in chief. The turnabout came only months after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescued al-Maliki from political oblivion during a visit to Baghdad. In December, Rice met with leaders from Iraq's Kurdish bloc, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the main Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, who had sought the tacit blessing of the White House to vote him out of power. Instead, Rice told the leaders that al-Maliki continued to have Bush's support, according to several Iraqi officials familiar with the meeting.
In March, Iran similarly intervened on al-Maliki's behalf. Iranian leaders persuaded the head of the Mahdi Army, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to end his militia's fighting in Basra after an Iraqi delegation traveled to Iran and met with senior Iranian officials and al-Sadr, according to a participant, lawmaker Ali Adeeb, a senior leader in al-Maliki's Dawa party. A second trip to Tehran, the Iranian capital, in May by Adeeb and others had a similar effect on Mahdi Army members fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
"Iran's help is paying off even now," Adeeb told the Los Angeles Times. "[Al-]Sadr's speeches and announcements are more moderate than they used to be."
In June, al-Maliki made his own visit to Tehran, a trip that coincided with a more hostile stance by the Iraqi government toward the United States.
In August, he formally shut down a joint Iraqi-U.S. committee on basic services for security in Baghdad. "He terminated the group, saying there were too many Americans," said a Western adviser to the Iraqi government.
Al-Maliki appears leery of being branded an American puppet. This has been most apparent in negotiations over the U.N. security agreement meant to provide a legal mechanism for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after 2008.
"The prime minister has shown everyone he means business," said lawmaker Sami Askari, a close adviser to al-Maliki. "Not everything America wants, America can get." Iraq is prepared to scrap the agreement and simply ask for an extension of one year or less at the U.N. Security Council if Washington doesn't agree to its terms, said Sheik Humam Hamoodi, a senior Iraqi lawmaker.
So far, the White House has balked at Iraq's demands for an unconditional U.S. troop-withdrawal date and for Iraqi courts to have some jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers.
U.S. commanders in Baghdad speak of handing most security functions to the Iraqi army and going into an oversight role, their aim before Iraq's sectarian warfare spiraled out of control in 2006.
Some Iraqis are worried about the deference toward al-Maliki.
"Unfortunately, the American government is not an active player in the Iraqi affairs as they were before. They participated previously in successful projects like national reconciliation and establishing the Sons of Iraq, but now they are only acting as spectators," said Salem Abdullah Juboori, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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