On July 7, 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he wanted a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Iraq that would include a withdrawal plan for American forces. The memorandum would take the place of two agreements that have stalled in negotiations over the future relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. This is not the first time that Iraqi officials have called for a U.S. withdrawal recently. The real issue however, is what is Maliki’s motivation. Does he want U.S. troops to eventually withdraw so that Iraq can be a fully sovereign country, is he simply positioning himself as a nationalist for the upcoming provincial elections that are planned for the end of 2008, or is it an example of brinkmanship by the prime minister to get the beat deal possible for Iraq?
Since November 2007 the U.S. and Iraqi governments have been working on two agreements for relations between the countries. One would define the political, military, and economic ties between the two, while the other would provide a legal basis for American forces in Iraq. Currently the U.S. operates under a United Nations resolution that will expire at the end of 2008. In November 2007, the two sides signed a Declaration of Principles that set up the terms for the long-term deals. The two agreements are suppose to be finished by July 31, 2008. As that date has approached, Iraqi politicians have become more and more divided. Many politicians believe that any deal will be an infringement upon Iraq’s sovereignty. That has placed the deadline in jeopardy, and it appears now that neither will be signed in time. In its place, Iraq has now proposed a short-term memorandum of understanding that would allow the U.S. to stay in Iraq until the other two agreements have been finalized.
As part of this memorandum, Prime Minister Maliki has proposed including a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal. This idea has been aired before. At the beginning of June 2008 a letter signed by just over half of Iraq’s parliamentarians was delivered to the U.S. Congress asking for a U.S. drawdown as part of any new U.S.-Iraq agreement. A few days later Maliki said that Iraq had the right to call on the U.S. to withdraw if it wanted. According to news reports, Maliki is calling on a phased withdrawal. First, the U.S. would hand over all of Iraq’s provinces to Iraqi security forces. Currently half are under Iraqi control. The U.S. would then move out of the cities and back to their major bases. Finally the U.S. and Iraq would review the security situation over a series of years, and begin pulling out American troops when the situation allowed it.
The administration seems to have been caught off guard by Maliki’s announcement. Bush has said that he opposes any set timeline for a U.S. withdrawal, and the White House responded to Maliki by saying they don’t believe he wants a specific timetable either. The Arab newspaper Al Hayat on the other hand, reported in July that the U.S. had actually agreed to a drawdown because it wants to set policy before a new administration comes into office. They also believe that a memorandum of understanding would not have to go through a Democratic Congress that might reject a longer-term deal. The whole process shows a lack of planning by the administration for such an important issue. It doesn’t appear that the U.S. made any public relations campaign to try to sell the deals to Iraqis. Instead, the State Department has been largely silent, and kept its dealings as secret as possible. The U.S. wants a long-term presence in Iraq, but doesn’t seem to have thought of a way to pull it off.
The most important thing to consider in these negotiations is Maliki’s motivations. There are many possible explanations. One is that Maliki and other government officials believe that Iraq’s security forces are approaching the point where they do not need a large U.S. military presence to secure the country anymore. The recent offensives in Basra, Sadr City, Mosul and Maysan province have emboldened many, including the prime minister, into thinking that Iraq can handle its own security affairs. Maliki’s statements therefore, could be an attempt to assert Iraq’s sovereignty. The calls for a U.S. drawdown could also be driven by Iraqi election politics. At the end of 2008 Iraq is scheduled to hold provincial elections. The results are up in the air. Over 500 individuals and parties have registered for the vote. The Shiites and Sunnis are fracturing rather than coming together, which threatens the parties that are now in power. Calling for the U.S. to withdraw could be a way for Iraqi politicians to divert attention away from their own shortcomings in governing the country, to focus the public upon the American presence instead. This nationalist stance could help garner votes and maintain the ruling parties control over the government. Finally, the statements could also be an attempt to negotiate with the U.S. Some Iraqi politicians believe that Bush is in a position of weakness because he wants an agreement before he leaves office in just a few months. Maliki is also reportedly afraid of being blamed for anything that could go wrong under the deals, so he may be threatening Bush with his greatest fear, a timed withdrawal, in a game of brinkmanship to get the greatest concessions possible. Others think that Iraq, not the U.S. needs to ultimately set the limits on America’s presence. All of these forces may be in play, and it’s too soon to say whether these are real threats or negotiating tactics.
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