One of the major consequences of the September 11 attacks ten years ago was that members of the Bush administration decided to “take advantage” of the resulting passions to pursue their long-planned vendetta against the government of Saddam Hussein. There followed the greatest US foreign policy disaster since the British occupied Washington, DC and burned the White House in 1814. I opposed the Bush invasion and occupation, since it violated the UN Charter, and I warned that “I have a bad feeling about this,” quoting Harrison Ford’s character in Star Wars. I warned that it would be seen as neo-imperialism, would revivify al-Qaeda, would throw the Shiites into the arms of Iran and would anger Turkey with regard to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Now, the US has an opportunity finally to extricate itself from the nightmare, but powerful forces in Washington are trying to ensure that the US keeps a significant troop presence in Iraq.
The number of US troops there is likely to be so small, however, that we risk a major attack on them, which could pull the US right back into Iraq. The only way to avoid this scenario is to get out altogether.
The Muqtada al-Sadr nativist Shiite movement in Iraq is planning a huge demonstration in downtown Baghdad on Friday, in favor of three demands. The first is that the Iraqi government announce an immediate jobs program that would put 50,000 Iraqis to work, from all ethnicities and religious groups. The second is that the Iraqi government give each Iraqi a royalty payment on Iraqi oil profits (ironically a suggestion once made by US viceroy in Iraq, Paul “Jerry” Bremer and modeled on a program in Alaska). The third is that there be no US troops at all in Iraq by the end of the year or earlier.
The Sadrists not only have a proven ability to put a lot of people in the streets, but their some 40 seats in parliament are key to the governing coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, so that he ignores them to his peril. The Iraqi constitution allows for parliament to call for a vote of no confidence if 50 MPs sign off on it, and rivals of al-Maliki such as Ayad Allawi have been calling for early elections.
The Sadrists’ Tahrir-style demonstration is intended to forestall any backpedaling by the Iraqi government on the issue of keeping US troops in the country after the end of this year.
It is therefore a special provocation that the US State Department now uses the phrase “formal negotiations” for its discussions with the Iraqi government of al-Maliki about the possibility of some 3000 US troops remaining in Iraq after December 31. Previously the terminology was simply “informal discussions.” But US ambassador Jim Jeffrey now feels that there is enough of a consensus among the Iraqi political leadership on the desirability of some US troops remaining that it is legitimate to talk about negotiations.
This terminological upgrade follows on a controversy in Washington that broke out Tuesday when Fox Cable News reported that President Obama had over-ruled his generals and opted for keeping only 3000 US troops in Iraq after December 31.
The report brought howls of outrage from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who say they want to keep 25,000 troops in Iraq. I am not sure why McCain and Graham believe that this decision is their own. The only legal document governing this issue is a Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Iraqi parliament and the Bush White House in late 2008, which stipulates that there must be no US troops in Iraq at all by December 31 of this year.
Al-Maliki is on record as saying that the SOFA cannot be amended. Rather, a new SOFA would have to be negotiated and approved by parliament, which might bring US troops back into the country. Personally, I am doubtful that if the issue goes to parliament, a US troop presence can be approved. The Kurds would want it, and maybe some members of al-Maliki’s coalition, and a few members of the Iraqiya List (now largely Sunni Arab in character). But I doubt the plan could get 163 votes or a majority in parliament.
The only way it could be done would be for the cabinet to make the decision and sidestep parliament. Then the Kurds, Allawi’s Iraqiya and al-Maliki could push it through if they wanted to. But al-Maliki has repeatedly said that the matter would have to go to parliament. Until he reneges on that commitment, my guess is that the plan is doomed.
Another possibility would be to reclassify US troops as trainers. This step would be legitimate insofar as Iraq has ordered a lot of military equipment, especially planes and helicopters, from the US, on which Iraqi crews will need substantial training.
But any way such a decision were made would provoke a backlash from the Sadrists, who have threatened to take back up arms if there are US troops in the country in 2012, and from nationalist or fundamentalist Sunnis. As Tom Ricks, among our most experienced Iraq correspondents, points out, 3,000 US troops aren’t troops, they are hostages waiting to be taken.
McCain and Lindsey play the Iran card in arguing for keeping a division in Iraq, saying that otherwise Iran will take over. But this argument is, as usual with Republican politicians regarding Iraq, a bewilderingly uninformed one. The US presided over the destruction of a Sunni-dominated secular Arab nationalist regime and the installation of a government led by fundamentalist Shiites, many of whom had lived in exile in Iran and had excellent relations with Tehran. That cow is out of the barn, and the presence of US troops is unlikely to be relevant to the budding Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, which is a political reality.
Iraq’s parliamentary system regularly produces hung parliaments and governments can only be formed with outside mediation. The US played that role in 2005, but Iran played it in 2010, by pressuring Muqtada al-Sadr to join a governing coalition with his enemy, al-Maliki. Al-Maliki is thus beholden to both Sadr and to Iran politically, and has been pushed toward Tehran by the Sunni crackdown on the Shiites of Bahrain and the prospect of a Sunni overthrow of the Shiite-dominated Baath Party in Syria. That is, the Arab Spring has finally produced that Shiite crescent of which the Sunni Arab monarchs began being afraid in 2004. Nothing Washington does is likely to change this new and consolidating alignment. And it is this alignment that makes a long-term US troop presence so unlikely, since none of the regional principals want it. But were some US troops to stay, they would be in constant danger and if they were hit, it could provoke the Third American-Iraqi War.