Al-Hayat writing in Arabic reports that nationalist Shiite clergyman Muqtada al-Sadr threatened on Saturday to revive his Mahdi Army militia if US troops tried to stay in Iraq past December 31, 2011. He said his fighters would return to carrying arms.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi protesters, mainly his supporters, gathered beginning early in the morning on Saturday in Beirut Square and along Palestine Street in Baghdad, in a huge rally to both observe and condemn the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The crowds would likely have been even larger, but Iraqi security forces closed off thoroughfares and bridges leading to the area of the city where the rally was staged. The neighborhood was chosen because a US base is nearby. Protests were also held in other cities in the vicinity of US bases, demanding an immediate departure of the American military.
Iran’s PressTV has video:
Rallies were held at the airport in Ninewa Province; in front of the K-1 Air Force base in Kirkuk, before Imam Ali Base in Dhi Qar, which is used by the US Air Force; in Anbar in front of the al-Asad Base, and in Basra at the international airport. Similar sites were targeted for demonstrations in other provinces.
Muqtada’s threat was a shot across the bow of the Obama administration, which has shown interest in recent weeks in maintaining a US military presence in Iraq past the end of this year. Gareth Porter reports that the Obama team has been spooked by the widespread unrest in the Middle East and have reconsidered their determination to get out of Iraq on a short timetable. With a tense and polarized situation in Bahrain after the Saudis sent in troops to support the Sunni monarchy against his majority-Shiite subjects (most of them demanding a constitutional monarchy), the future of the US headquarters of the Fifth Fleet in the Oil Gulf is in doubt. The Arab Shiites of the Gulf are boiling with anger, which could give Shiite Iran an opening to make a bid for greater influence with them. The Obama team seems to think that for the US to abruptly pick up stakes in Iraq at this juncture would threaten the security architecture of the Eastern Arab world and perhaps even the security of petroleum exports from the region, which holds nearly two-thirds of the world’s proven petroleum reserves.
Thus, Vice President Joe Biden, who has the Iraq portfolio at the White House, called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday, apparently to pressure him to extend the US troop presence. The Status of Forces Agreement agreed to by the Iraqi parliament and the Bush administration in fall, 2008, stipulates that all US troops should depart the country by the end of 2011, but allows the Iraqis to request an extension. Washington interprets ‘the Iraqis’ to be the Prime Minister (apparently on analogy to the imperial presidency and the way that Congress has been marginalized in international affairs in the US). Iraqi parliamentarians, however, insist that an extension would have to be agreed to by parliament. The Biden phone call was followed by a visit from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, during which he offered to extend the troop presence but pointed to the short time window within which the request would have to be made. (The US is down to 47,000 or so troops in Iraq and would have to start a steep drawdown soon if there is no extension).
Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Muhammad Salman, a member of Parliament who belongs to the largely secular and Sunni Iraqiya ticket (the largest single party in parliament, but which was unable to form a coalition yielding 51% of seats), said that his party would insist on a popular referendum on any extension. (Al-Iraqiya in the past at least has been relatively positive toward the US, but it has become more Sunni over time and many Sunnis are Iraqi nationalists uncomfortable with the American presence). The SOFA was supposed to be passed by referendum, but one has never been held.
The problem for the Obama administration is that Iraq still has no Minister of Defense, with PM al-Maliki holding that portfolio himself until he can find a compromise candidate acceptable both to his and the other major parties. Some high-ranking Iraqi generals are Kurds, who desperately want the Americans to stay, but whose views in this regard are distinctly ethnic (Kurds in the north were massacred by Arab troops in 1988, and as non-Arab Iraqis with substantial autonomy from the state, they fear that a complete US departure would leave them vulnerable to being pulled back into Baghdad’s orbit and subordinated to the majority Arabs). There are thus no credible independent voices among the new Arab elite who could give al-Maliki cover if he tried to keep the Americans around.
The situation, Porter says, is further complicated by the Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council flexing of muscles to assert Sunni privilege over Shiite Islam in the Gulf. The action has angered Iraq’s Shiites, produced big rallies, and pushed al-Maliki closer to Iran. Many Shiite Iraqis, now in power, are afraid of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accusing them sometimes of having funded Sunni fundamentalist guerrillas to set off vast numbers of bombs and sniping campaigns in 2005-2007 (it is unlikely that the two governments were implicated, though there are a lot of crazy Gulf millionaires who might have sent some money for such purposes). If al-Maliki now needs Iran more to offset a militant pro-Sunni Saudi Arabia and UAE, well, Iran would likely have a price for support, which would be an end to the US presence in Iraq.
Al-Maliki’s increasing willingness to do Iran’s bidding may be behind the strong response on Friday by Iraqi troops to attacks by the Mujahidin-i Khalq members at Camp Ashraf. Iran (indeed, the US State Department) views them as a terrorist organization that has set off many bombs inside Iran. The camp is there because Saddam Hussein was using this political cult, which traditionally combined Marxism and Muslim fundamentalism, to harass Iran.
Given the new frictions between Sunnis and Shiites over Bahrain and Saudi intervention, and given that al-Maliki increasingly needs Iranian support and has since last fall depended heavily on Muqtada al-Sadr for his ruling majority in parliament, the likelihood that al-Maliki can and will try to please the Obama administration by requesting an extension of the American presence is probably low.
Given that Gates is an old-time Realist in the Bush I mold, you wonder whether his heart is even in this sudden quixotic turn of Obama and his officials to wanting to retain a toehold in Iraq. It isn’t practical. Even if al-Maliki acquiesced and tried to implement an extension by fiat, it would likely cause his government to fall, and would also provoke a constitutional crisis with the parliament. With new elections, there would be no guarantee that whoever became prime minister would stand by the request for an extension. And, 20,000 US troops in Iraq are not troops, they are hostages. Their bases would attract on a constant basis the kind of demonstrations we saw in front of the existing ones on Saturday, and might well be a political vehicle whereby the hard line Sadrist trend among Shiites could strengthen itself. It could also throw Iraq back into militia violence.
I’m not sure what the Obama administration thinks it would gain from staying in Iraq, but it is a very, very, bad idea. The vast majority of Iraqis does not want the US there, and nor do the countries of the region, and nor was there ever a legal basis for them to have gone there in the first place. Staying past 2011 without an act of parliament and a national referendum would be illegal, and might well provoke the paroxysm of violence it is said to be an attempt to counter. Iraqi troops can be trained outside the country, and a US air security umbrella, if Iraqis want one, can be provided from al-Udeid Base in Qatar– it doesn’t have to involve bases in Iraq.