1 GI Killed, 5 Wounded in Iraq; Rubaie’s Comments Roil McCain Campaign

The statements of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and National Security Counsellor Muwaffaq Rubaie about the need for a timetable for US troop withdrawal may have an unexpected and significant impact on the US presidential campaign.

On Tuesday, after consultations with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Rubaie held a news conference. His remarks suggested that Sistani read him the riot act, demanding that full Iraqi sovereignty be preserved at all costs.

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that he said, that Baghdad would reject any Status of Forces Agreement or Memorandum of Understanding that did not contain a specific timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. He added:

‘ Today, we are not speaking about a timetable for the foreign presence in Iraq, but rather we are talking about an evacuation of foreign forces from the country . . . But it is very difficult to specify dates that would stick right now for the evacuation of those forces, because the [Iraqi] government talks of its own dates, and the foreigners speak of their dates. So far, no agreement has been reached . . . It is impossible for Iraq to accept any memorandum of agreement that detracts from its sovereignty and independence . . . That is the view both of the government and of the supreme religious authority [Hawzah] . . . The evacuation of American forces has become a clear reality that can be envisioned. . . . We cannot accept the presence of permanent bases in Iraq . . . [but there is] the possibility that there will be camps obedient to Iraqi sovereignty.”‘

[Note that the US has many Status of Forces Agreements with countries around the world, and none specifies that US troops be under another country's sovereignty or be liable to be tried in that country's courts and what al-Rubaie is asking for will be unacceptable to Washington. Update: Readers with experience in Korea and Japan have written to say that US troops in Korea and Japan can be tried in local courts. I suppose the difference is that the US military in Iraq is actively undertaking military operations, some of which an Iraqi court could suddenly declare criminal.]

On Monday in the United Arab Emirates, al-Maliki himself had said, “The current trend is toward a memorandum of understanding, either for the evacuation of the [foreign] forces or a timetable for their withdrawal.”

This is the first time al-Maliki has spoken this way publicly, but it isn’t a new idea in his circles. The fundamentalist Shiite United Iraqi Alliance that is al-Maliki’s main backer in parliament had originally put a plank in its party platform calling for a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq back in late 2004, but apparently dropped it at American insistence. Al-Maliki himself was elected in 2006 initially with the backing of the Sadr Movement, which has all along demanded a timetable for US troop withdrawal.

A US military operation in al-Maliki’s ancestral village in Karbala province recently left one of his cousins dead. Iraqis complained that the US had not coordinated the operation with them, even though it had formally turned security duties over to the Karbala security forces. Al-Maliki was reportedly furious, and the incident may have been a turning point for him. Many forces in Iraqi society are demanding that US troops not have the prerogative of launching military operations in Iraq without obtaining the permission of Baghdad.

The memorandum of understanding that al-Maliki spoke of would presumably be an agreement signed by the Iraqi prime minister and the US president, cutting out both the Iraqi parliament and the US Congress. Perhaps al-Maliki thinks that a timetable for withdrawal would mollify the members of parliament about their being denied the opportunity to ratify or reject the agreement. If so, he is probably misjudging the mood of parliament. The deputy speaker of parliament, Khalid al-Atiyah, said Tuesday that the parliament is insistent that any agreement with Washington be voted on by the Iraqi legislature. He added that parliament would oppose any text that guaranteed US troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for any misconduct in which they might engage while in Iraq.

The Obama campaign welcomed al-Maliki’s and al-Rubaie’s remarks. It also pointed out that McCain had said in 2004 that if the Iraqi government asked the US to withdraw, “it’s obvious we would have to leave.” Now, McCain’s position seems to be that he would like to keep troops in Iraq regardless of what the elected Iraqi government thinks of that.

McCain always had a difficult case to make to the American people about why they needed to expend blood and treasure to stay in Iraq. McCain maintains that it is for their own safety, but polling shows that most people do not buy that argument. Now McCain has to argue for keeping the troops there even though the Iraqi people and even the pro-American prime minister do not want them there.

That position will sound like colonialism to many Americans– an expensive, sanguinary colonialism that they have to pay for. Individual Americans, including babies, have spent $2,000 each on the Iraq War so far, money a lot of them wish they had back right now (that is $8000 for a family of four.) Between its lack of legitimacy and its cost, they typically don’t want it.

Despite the hype about Iraq being “calm,” a typical day such as yesterday still looks like this according to Antiwar.com:

“One American servicemember was killed and five others were wounded in separate incidents around Baghdad. In northern Iraq, four Coalition contractors were also killed, but their nationalities are unknown at press time. At least 36 Iraqis were killed or found dead and 28 more were wounded in other attacks. Also, a UN representative reported that one-sixth of Iraq’s population has been displaced due to violence.”

In contrast, Obama and al-Maliki sound as though they are on the same page. Obama said Monday of al-Maliki, “I think that his statement is consistent with my view about how withdrawals should proceed . . . I think it’s encouraging … that the prime minister himself now acknowledges that in cooperation with Iraq, it’s time for American forces to start sending out a timeframe for the withdrawal.”

Iraq was originally expected to be the primary issue in the 2008 presidential election. Instead, opinion polls tend to show that it is the second most important issue, after the economy. That second place showing does not justify the decision of corporate television news to deep-six the Iraq story. It is still the number one issue for 25 percent of Americans, which is 75 million people. Moreover, as of last March 71% of Americans thought that the Iraq debacle was part of the reason for the bad economy, so when they name the latter as the most important issue a lot of them are rolling the two issues into one.

So Iraq is still central to the campaign, and people are fooling themselves if they say otherwise. But it isn’t playing out as expected.

The major debate that the Republicans were looking forward to having revolved around the success of the troop escalation of 2007-2008, now mostly over. They want to argue that the escalation showed that Iraq is not an unwinnable war and that counter-insurgency techniques could tamp down violence. Therefore, there was no reason for the next president to withdraw US troops. Moreover, McCain argued, if the US withdrew from Iraq, “al-Qaeda” would take over the country and use it as a base to attack the American mainland. A timetable for withdrawal was both unnecessarily defeatist and also highly unwise, they were saying. They completely ignored the political yields expected of the troop escalation, most of which have not materialized, concentrating only on death statistics.

The idea that a tiny fringe terrorist group not popular with even Sunni Arab Iraqis could take over a largely Shiite country with a large Kurdish minority was always daft and that McCain alleged it is already reason to question whether he has the judgment to be president. But even Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of US forces in northern Iraq, is saying that al-Qaeda has been defeated in his area of operations.

‘”Defeat means they’re not capable of major offensive operations . . . We don’t think al Qaeda has that anymore. All the cities that we have in the northern part of Iraq, I think have been secured . . . We’re literally in the post-Gettysburg phase of this . . . . We have defeated them in the city. They have dispersed to the desert, now we are pursuing them out into their safe havens: small villages and towns.” ‘

Hertling specifically gave the credit for this victory to a change in the esprit de corps of the Iraqi Army. I have all along maintained that “al-Qaeda in Iraq” was over-hyped and that it would be defeated because it chose a sectarian rather than a nationalist strategy.

So then how likely is it that “al-Qaeda” is going to take over anything substantial in Iraq in the short to medium term, US troops or no US troops? I mean, it was always a silly idea (even if the Shiites and Kurds would not have massacred them, the Turks, Syrians and Jordanians would have). But Hertling’s comments underline how silly that scenario is.

By the way, the American public never bought McCain’s terror-mongering. In February more thought al-Qaeda was more likely to attack the US if it kept troops in Iraq than if it withdrew. 16 percent thought it made no difference, and altogether 56 percent thought that it was either more dangerous to stay in Iraq than to leave or thought it was a wash. only 38 percent then thought that a withdrawal from Iraq increased the danger of a terror hit on the US.

Given the way the American Right has crafted the narrative of Iraq, as being all about “al-Qaeda,” for that organization to disappear from the front pages would be a cruel blow to the McCain campaign. Without it, there is no justification for the US to remain in Iraq.

Almost as bad is for the Iraqi government now to align its position with that of the Obama campaign. McCain increasingly looks like he is stuck in 2007 with regard to Iraq policy, and Obama looks more and more like the man of the future. That conclusion is the opposite of the Right’s spin on Obama, but then they have never understood colonialism or what is wrong with it.