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Analysis Last Updated: Dec 3rd, 2008 - 01:35:22

Maliki and Bush: Conflicting priorities
By Abbas J. Ali, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 3, 2008, 00:20

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Faced with monumental political pressures and historic moral and patriotic responsibilities, the Prime Minister of Iraqi, Nuri al-Maliki, remarkably was able to derail and delay, for more than nine months, the approval of the security and military pact with Washington. President Bush considers the pact, in its original form, a milestone for his success in subduing the Iraqi people and ensuring the mortgaging to Washington of Iraqi political will and natural resources for years to come.

Foreign affairs experts, however, doubted that President Bush would get that much as Maliki has managed to delete critical items, though not all, in the pact which are a threat to Iraqi sovereignty and to modify others which are intended to paralyze the Iraqi government. Likewise, Maliki has made it clear to Iraqis that the pact is not a legitimization but the beginning of the end of the occupation.

Maliki is a shrewd politician and understands that there are more than 150,000 well-armed foreign military forces along with thousands of private security personnel occupying his country. In contrast, the Iraqi army is ill-equipped and is highly restricted from maneuvering in its own country by the occupational forces. Furthermore, Maliki understands that terrorists and foreign elements linked to neighboring countries and separatist ethnic militias can be unleashed against his government in a matter of hours. This requires him to be prudent and diligent in outfoxing his opponents.

While many news reports and leaks have indicated that Washington might peacefully or forcefully, through a military coup d��tat, remove Maliki from power, the London-based Arabic newspaper, Alhyat, reported (Nov. 1, 08) that Washington delivered an overt threat to the Iraqi government. The threat has three elements: if there is no security pact, there will be instability and insecurity; no security agreement constitutes a threat to Iraq business and economy; and with no security agreement, the Iraqi institutions are subject to serious threats. The message to Maliki is clear and goes well beyond his personal interest; the existence of the whole country is at stake.

President Bush, in his attempts to finalize the security pact, has devised a comprehensive strategy to weaken Maliki and make it possible to ratify the pact by Iraqis. This strategy is built on seven elements. First, establish and arm new militias, the Awakening Groups, to be used to weaken and intimidate the central government. This militia was originally envisioned by Saudi Arabia intelligence and immediately welcomed by General David Petraeus. Second, encourage the ethnic militia in the north to position themselves as an unrivaled military power and permit them to extend their power well beyond their autonomous region. In fact, the two warlords of these groups have in recent months begun to publicly challenge the Iraqi government on all fronts, and one of them announced in his recent visit to Washington that, if the Iraqi government does not sign the security Pact, he will allow American military bases in his region. Furthermore, these militias actively engage in procuring sophisticated weapons from abroad ignoring the Iraqi government�s protests.

Third, encourage rivalry among the coalition members of the government. Fourth, replace or fire Iraqi military and security officers who show commitment to building a united and democratic Iraq. Those senior officers who go along with the ratification of the Pact are strengthened. Fifth, finance and support media outlets and public figures to promote the Pact. Sixth, use force to intimidate and suppress any existing or potential grass-roots organizations, especially the Sadrists, which may object to signing the security pact or object to any violation of Iraqi independence and sovereignty principles. Finally, Washington repeatedly has reminded Iraqi politicians that it is using its leverage in holding Iraqi assets and its role in the UN Security Council to obtain concessions. The administration has made it clear to Maliki that Iraq, without a security pact, would not be free from UN Article Number 7 which considers the country a threat to world peace. Furthermore, Iraq would not have unrestricted access to its money reserve which resulted from the UN imposed Oil for Food Program during the Saddam era. This reserve amounts to more than $50 billion and is under Washington control.

In his attempt to counter this strategy, Maliki has embarked on practical steps which are intended to widen the appeal of his programs and policies. He has undertaken concentrated steps to solidify his power and strengthen his bargaining position with Washington. First, he has deliberately positioned loyalists in leading government jobs and roles to ensure compliance with his instructions. For example, he fired most members of the negotiation team with the American representatives regarding the Pact and replaced them with close confidants.

Second, Maliki, at a critical time for his power, has decided to appease the Bush administration by going along with its determination to forcefully suppress grassroot groups. Simultaneously, he has strongly denounced the killing of innocent Iraqis by foreign forces. Third, his government has established and financed a semi-official militia called, Esnad, or the Support Councils in many areas to counter the occupation-supported militias. Fourth, he has strengthened relations with the religious authority across the country to enlist its early support for a possible showdown with the Bush administration. Lastly, he has championed a patriotic agenda with an emphasis on ending the occupation and building a viable and healthy country.

The security pact, or the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), has been approved by Iraqi Parliament. However, many members in the Parliament were under intense pressure by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to support it. The Sadrist bloc and the Fadila Party have publicly voiced their concerns. Both rejected the agreement on principle. A few members of the Parliament while welcoming the agreement to maintain foreign forces in the country argue that the current agreement gives considerable power to Maliki.

Many international experts argue that there is nothing wrong with having SOFA between or among countries. In fact, they indicate that the U.S. has SOFA with other countries like Germany and Japan. These experts, however, point out that unlike the SOFA with Germany and Japan, the agreement with Iraq contains serious elements which may threaten Iraqi sovereignty and the basic rights of its citizens. Article Nine of the Agreement, for example, gives the right for U.S. vehicles, ships, and airplanes to enter and leave Iraq without search: �United States Government aircraft and civil aircraft that are at the time operating exclusively under a contract with the United States Department of Defense, vessels, and vehicles shall not have any party boarding them without the consent of the authorities of the United States Forces.�

Furthermore, Article Fourteen states, �members of the United States Forces and of the civilian component may enter and leave Iraq through agreed facilities and areas requiring only identification cards issued for them by the United States.� Article Fifteen gives permission to U.S. forces and contractors to import into Iraq and export from Iraq and without any restrictions. It states, �The exportation of Iraqi goods by the United States Forces and United States contractors shall not be subject to inspections or any restrictions.� Likewise, Article Twenty seven is vague and gives Washington an explicit permission to wage war for whatever justifications deem appropriate. It states that in �the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq that would violate its sovereignty, political independence, or territorial integrity, waters, airspace, its democratic system or its elected institutions . . . the United States shall take appropriate measures.�

The Agreement, however, contains what many experts consider a great achievement for Maliki. Specifically, for the first time, the Bush administration has agreed to leave Iraq in a specific year, 2011, and foreign forces will leave Iraqi cities and towns by mid 2009. In addition, the agreement may give the Iraq government the opportunity to free the country from UN Article number 7 and regain full access to its funds which are controlled by the White House. Most importantly, it allows the Iraqi military to move freely in its own country.

Middle East analysts, while having reservations about the current agreement, still believe, that under current conditions, Maliki has been successful in delaying and ultimately modifying the agreement, securing Iraq�s full independence in a few years, and including a clause in the agreement that asks the new administration to free Iraq from the nightmare of the occupation. These experts point out that Maliki did not sign the agreement until he got a sense of the coming administration�s outlook toward Iraq. With Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Rahm Emanuel, among others, who are considered hawkish on Iraq, Maliki must develop an understanding that those around Obama may not make it possible to free Iraq in the immediate future.

Maliki is a seasoned politician who has managed over two years to outfox Bush and the neoconservatives� design for Iraq and the region. In their messianic vision, Bush and the neoconservatives have considered an independent and prosperous Iraq to be a threat. They have wanted a fragmented Iraq; a staging ground for their military operations against neighboring countries. In contrast, Maliki has carefully rethought his priorities and seems to have reached a conclusion that his fate is linked to the future of Iraq. Thus, he has diligently focused on slowly building an integrated, unified, and a functional free country.

Initially, many experts, inside and outside Iraq, doubted that Maliki had the skill and the depth to mount effective counter policies against neoconservatives and their cronies inside Iraq. But Maliki, up to this moment, has appeared to be successful in derailing the neoconservatives� scheme and setting the foundation for a stable government despite the existence of a formidable obstacle; working under the shadow of one of the ugliest and most costly occupations in current history.

Indeed, Maliki has been successful in communicating to actors inside and outside the country that as long as Iraq continues to experience sovereignty deficit, its chances for a healthy economic and social development will be a remote possibility. In recent months, he has confronted those who call for a fragmented Iraq with exceptional assertiveness and confidence. Furthermore, he has embarked on policies necessary for assuring ordinary people that there are no compromises on issues pertaining to their safety and the application of law and order across Iraq.

In the next few months, Maliki may face historical challenges in unifying the country and freeing it from the occupation. In their original plan, the neoconservatives did not envision an independent and a functional Iraq. As one of them put it in 2003, �We�ve got to scare the Iraqis into submission.� The events in Iraq prove that, despite brutal suppression, starvation, and wide spread destruction, there are still patriotic Iraqis who can do the impossible and eventually dismantle the neoconservatives� scheme.

Abbas J. Ali is professor and director, School of International Management, Eberly College of Business, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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