US worries as Maliki gets 'difficult'
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - American officials privately admit being concerned that Iraqi
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become "overconfident" about his government's
ability to manage without US combat troops, according to an Iraq analyst who
just returned from a trip to Iraq arranged by US commander General David
Colin Kahl, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) - which
has supported a long-term US military presence in Iraq - told the press there
was "a certain degree of grudging respect for al-Maliki" among officials with
whom we met, "but
more often concern about his emerging overconfidence which is making it
difficult to interact with him".
That assessment contrasts with statements of George W Bush administration
officials implying that Maliki's public demands for a timetable for US military
withdrawal are merely negotiating ploys or political grandstanding.
US officials admitted that Maliki's overconfidence has influenced the status of
forces negotiations, according to Kahl. None of the US officials in Baghdad
would "lead off with badmouthing the prime minister", Kahl said in an interview
with Inter Press Service, but on probing further, "you get a sense they are
concerned that the al-Maliki regime has an inflated sense of his power".
The Bush administration hoped negotiations with Maliki on a status of forces
agreement would legitimize a long-term US military presence in Iraq and control
over a number of military bases, but the Iraqi leader refused to go along with
an agreement that lacked a timetable for withdrawal of all US troops.
Maliki's new sense of confidence has been accompanied by a new political
identity as a nationalist foe of the occupation, according to Kahl. "He is
successfully fashioning himself as an Iraqi hero who kicked the Americans out.
That makes him difficult to negotiate with."
One of the consequences of Maliki's perception of the new power relations in
Iraq is that he is even less inclined than before to make accommodations with
former Sunni insurgents now on the US payroll in the militias called "Sons of
Kahl said in the briefing that, of the 103,000 Sunnis belonging to those
militias, the Iraqi government had promised to take into the security forces
only about 16,000. But in fact, it has approved only 600 applicants thus far,
according to Kahl, and most of those have turned out to be Shi'ite rather than
"There's even some evidence that [Maliki] wants to start a fight with the Sons
of Iraq," said Kahl. "Al-Maliki doesn't believe he has to accommodate these
people. He will only do it if we twist his arm to the breaking point."
Kahl said Maliki has made a series of moves that have consolidated his personal
power position within the state apparatus as well as in relation to various
armed groups in the country. He has put intelligence agencies directly under
his control and has set up major military operation centers around the country
which report directly to the prime minister's office.
Even more important, however, Maliki's power position has also been bolstered
by the decisions by nationalist Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr not to launch a
concerted military resistance to US and Iraqi government campaigns to weaken
his Mahdi Army in 2007 and then to give up his political-military power
positions in Basra, Sadr City and Amarah in 2008 without having been militarily
Petraeus and the US military command in Iraq have asserted that Muqtada's
decisions reflected the fact that the Mahdi Army had been weakened by US
military pressures. However, the broader set of developments over the past year
suggests that the primary reason for Muqtada's willingness to give up military
resistance was a strategic understanding with Iran to shift to political and
diplomatic resistance to the US military presence.
High officials in the Maliki regime asserted repeatedly last autumn that it was
Iran's intervention with Muqtada that brought about the unilateral ceasefire of
August 27, 2007. Muqtada's decisions to give up military control of the
southern city of Basra and Sadr City in Baghdad before his forces were defeated
were taken in the context of Iranian mediation between Muqtada and the Maliki
Iran's strategic relationship with Muqtada accomplished what the US military
never believed would be possible even in its most optimistic scenario - the
neutralization of the most potent political-military threat to the regime's
stability. The ability of Iran to deliver that benefit to Maliki - as part of a
broader shift to an anti-occupation regime policy - almost certainly
strengthened the case that Iran made to Maliki for a demand for a timetable for
US troop withdrawal in the status of forces negotiations.
Kahl is sympathetic to the official US concerns about Maliki. Both Kahl and
CNAS have called for negotiation of a US military presence in Iraq going well
beyond the 2010 deadline for complete US withdrawal that Maliki has put forward
In an unpublished paper for CNAS last April, Kahl advocated that the US should
keep 60,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq into late 2010 in what he called a
"sustainable over-watch posture".
Despite the change in the power situation, Kahl and CNAS still take the
position that Iraq needs long-term US support so badly that the Bush
administration should use its leverage to get the Maliki regime to make the
political accommodations necessary to achieve longer-term stability in the
country. For example, the Iraq government's need for US help in recovering
illegally exported funds and properties, which were included in the statement
of principles governing the negotiations last November at Iraqi insistence.
Then there is the threat of immediate troop withdrawal if Maliki does not toe
the line. Kahl said he was told in Iraq that, in one of the regular video
conferences Bush holds with Maliki, he said, "If the negotiations crash and
burn, I will be forced to pull out all US troops by January 1."
That Bush threat "got al-Maliki's attention", Kahl believes. He advocates the
use of such threats to force Maliki to accommodate the interests of the Sunnis
as well as those of the Sadrists, in order to bring them fully into the
political system. Otherwise, Kahl argues, the security gains of 2007 and 2008
will ultimately be reversed.
Maliki is no longer dependent on Washington as he was a year or two ago. That
major shift in power relations - now reluctantly acknowledged by the Bush
administration - has brought into sharper relief the contradictions between the
interests of the Iraqi government and those of the administration.
The Maliki regime is a Shi'ite-dominated government that views its Sunni Arab
neighbors - who have generally opposed Shi'ite rule in Iraq - with intense
distrust and looks to Iran for support against them. The Bush administration,
on the other hand, has forged closer relations with Sunni regimes against Iran.
The short-term Shi'ite dependence on the US occupation to establish Shi'ite
control of the state apparatus is giving way to a more fundamental distrust
toward US power in Iraq and the region.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.