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Mainstream, VOL L, No 8, February 11, 2012

The Untold Story of US Retreat from Iraq

Tuesday 14 February 2012, by M K Bhadrakumar

The plot was believed to be as follows: Washington wanted to keep long-term US military presence in Iraq but the popular opinion in Iraq militated against it, which ultimately left the Barack Obama Administration no choice but to comply with the Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA] and to withdraw all the troops by the stipulated deadline of December 2011.

The US of course has given the spin that the withdrawal has been of its own accord. And the Republicans have been berating Obama for not doing all he should have done to keep the US military bases in Iraq as the US’ regional strategy.
Now comes the plot within the plot. Even as there was vehement opposition amongst the Iraqi people to the US military bases, it seems there was also a three-way conspiracy involving Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (who George W. Bush had thought to be his man in Baghdad), Iraqi Islamist leader Moqtada al-Sadr and Tehran to hoodwink the Americans into believing that they were going to be in Iraq forever.

Tehran apparently cleared much cloud cover for Maliki by playing up a story that Maliki and al-Sadr were sworn enemies out to vanquish each other—although all three were secretly collaborating in the anti-US project.

Bush and Condoleeza Rice bought Maliki’s spin and walked into an Iraqi trap to sign the SOFA. Only to get the shock of their lives that Maliki was going to insist on the withdrawal deadline in the SOFA. No wonder Bush failed to show up at the recent ceremony, attended by Obama, observing the victorious “homecoming” of the US Army from Iraq.

Can there be a repeat in Afghanistan? Washington will be very alert that there is no replay. In any case. for such a thing to repeat in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai and Mohammed Fahim should work out a deal with Pakistan and Iran to get rid of the US and NATO military presence, while pretending they were Obama’s best pals in town. Seems a difficult proposition. The Iraqis seem to be better nationalists than the Afghans.

The moral is of course that the jury is still out in Libya where the US and NATO may presently believe they have everything under control.

By the way, imagine the mixed feelings racing through Obama’s inner world as he received Maliki in the White House. Gareth Porter’s breathtaking account of how Maliki, al-Sadr and Iran conspired together and hoodwinked Bush and Rice makes great reading. It is here.

WASHINGTON, Dec 16, 2011 (IPS)—Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s suggestion that the end of the US troop presence in Iraq is part of a US military success story ignores the fact that the George W. Bush Administration and the US military had planned to maintain a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq.

The real story behind the US withdrawal is how a clever strategy of deception and diplomacy adopted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in cooperation with Iran outmanoeuvred Bush and the US military leadership and got the United States to sign the US-Iraq withdrawal agreement.

A central element of the Maliki-Iran strategy was the common interest that Maliki, Iran and anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shared in ending the US occupation, despite their differences over other issues.

Maliki needed Sadr’s support, which was initially based on Maliki’s commitment to obtain a time schedule for US troops’ withdrawal from Iraq.

In early June 2006, a draft national reconci-liation plan that circulated among Iraqi political groups included agreement on “a time schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq” along with the build-up of Iraqi military forces. But after a quick trip to Baghdad, Bush rejected the idea of a withdrawal timetable.

Maliki’s national security adviser Mowaffak Al-Rubaei revealed in a Washington Post op-ed that Maliki wanted foreign troops reduced by more than 30,000 to under 100,000 by the end of 2006 and withdrawal of “most of the remaining troops” by end of the 2007.

When the full text of the reconciliation plan was published June 25, 2006, however, the commitment to a withdrawal timetable was missing.

In June 2007, senior Bush Administration officials began leaking to reporters plans for maintaining what The New York Times described as “a near-permanent presence” in Iraq, which would involve control of four major bases.

Maliki immediately sent Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to Washington to dangle the bait of an agreement on troops before then Vice President Dick Cheney.
As recounted in Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends, Zebari urged Cheney to begin negotiating the US military presence in order to reduce the odds of an abrupt withdrawal that would play into the hands of the Iranians.

In a meeting with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in September 2007, National Security Adviser Rubaie said Maliki wanted a “Status of Forces Agreement” (SOFA) that would allow US forces to remain but would “eliminate the irritants that are apparent violations of Iraqi sovereignty”, according Bob Woodward’s The War Within.

Maliki’s national security adviser was also seeking to protect the Mahdi Army from US military plans to target it for major attacks. Meeting Bush’s coordinator for the Iraq War, Douglas Lute, Rubaie said it was better for Iraqi security forces to take on Sadr’s militias than for US Special Forces to do so.

He explained to the Baker-Hamilton Commission that Sadr’s use of military force was not a problem for Maliki, because Sadr was still part of the government.

PUBLICLY, the Maliki Government continued to assure the Bush Administration it could count on a long-term military presence. Asked by NBC’s Richard Engel on January 24, 2008 if the agreement would provide long-term US bases in Iraq, Zebari said, “This is an agreement of enduring military support. The soldiers are going to have to stay someplace. They can’t stay in the air.”

Confident that it was going to get a South Korea-style SOFA, the Bush Administration gave the Iraqi Government a draft on March 7, 2008 that provided for no limit on the number of US troops or the duration of their presence. Nor did it give Iraq any control over US military operations.

But Maliki had a surprise in store for Washington.

A series of dramatic moves by Maliki and Iran over the next few months showed that there had been an explicit understanding between the two governments to prevent the US military from launching major operations against the Mahdi Army and to reach an agreement with Sadr on ending the Mahdi Army’s role in return for assurances that Maliki would demand the complete withdrawal of US forces.
In mid-March 2007, Maliki ignored pressure from a personal visit by Cheney to cooperate in taking down the Mahdi Army and instead abruptly vetoed US military plans for a major operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra. Maliki ordered an Iraqi Army assault on the dug-in Sadrist forces.

Predictably, the operation ran into trouble, and within days, Iraqi officials had asked General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, to intervene and negotiate a ceasefire with Sadr, who agreed, although his troops were far from defeated.

A few weeks later, Maliki again prevented the United States from launching its biggest campaign yet against the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. And again, Suleimani was brought in to work out a deal with Sadr allowing government troops to patrol in the former Mahdi Army stronghold.

There was a subtext to Suleimani’s interven-tions. Just as Suleimani was negotiating the Basra ceasefire with Sadr, a website associated with former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezai said Iran opposed actions by “hard-line clans” that “only weaken the government and people of Iraq and give a pretext to its occupiers”.
In the days that followed that agreement, Iranian state news media portrayed the Iraqi crackdown in Basra as being against illegal and “criminal” forces.
The timing of each political diplomatic move by Maliki appears to have been determined in discussions between Maliki and top Iranian officials.

Just two days after returning from a visit to Tehran in June 2008, Maliki complained publicly about US demands for indefinite access to military bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for US troops and private contractors.
In July, he revealed that his government was demanding the complete withdrawal of US troops on a timetable.

The Bush Administration was in a state of shock. From July to October, it pretended that it could simply refuse to accept the withdrawal demand, while trying vainly to pressure Maliki to back down.

In the end, however, Bush Administration officials realised that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was then far ahead of Republican John McCain in polls, would accept the same or an even faster timetable for withdrawal. In October, Bush decided to sign the draft agreement pledging withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2011.

The ambitious plans of the US military to use Iraq to dominate the Middle East militarily and politically had been foiled by the very regime the United States had installed, and the officials behind the US scheme, had been clueless about what was happening until it was too late.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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