On October 4, 2011, the leaders of Iraq’s major parties met in Baghdad in what was supposed to be a far-reaching discussion on the outstanding matters left over from the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Instead, only one major issue was decided upon, which was authorizing the government to allow American trainers in Iraq past the December 2011 withdrawal deadline. The parties already agreed to this last month, showing how Maliki has been able to fend off their demands so that he may remain in office.
Iraq’s leaders were supposed to discuss the major problems within the government on October 4, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had his own agenda. Its been nineteen months since national elections, and there are still no permanent security ministers, no National Council for Strategic Policies, and the premier has failed to follow through with most of his promises to the Kurds that he made in return for their support. These were the topics to be discussed by members of Maliki’s State of Law, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement, the Kurdish Coalition, the Sadrists, and others in a meeting hosted by President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad. When the meeting adjourned only one major decision was made, and it had nothing to do with those topics. Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh emerged to tell the press that the political leaders had agreed to allow U.S. military trainers in Iraq for 2012, but they would receive no immunity from Iraqi laws. Prime Minister Maliki seemed to have manipulated the agenda to stave off dealing with any substantive issues about the government, and instead got the parties to discuss the American presence. Not only that, but the decision on trainers had already implicitly been agreed upon, so the meeting turned out to be another wasted opportunity to solve any of the long-standing disputes in Iraq.
Back in August, President Talabani held another get together, which was supposed to work out the differences between the premier and the Iraqi National Movement. What came out of that was the first agreement about U.S. trainers. The parties gave their okay to Maliki to negotiate with Washington over a troop extension, except they would be called trainers. This would be accomplished through a memorandum of understanding between the two governments that would not require parliamentary approval because the legislature would not go for a formal agreement. The prime minister first suggested instructors instead of a large military force in late July. As a concession to the lawmakers, American soldiers would not be given immunity. This decision was further supported by comments by individual politicians in the following days. On August 8 for example, Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq of the National Movement said he rejected any troop extension, but that trainers could be needed. Three days later, Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party told the media that the Kurds supported U.S. forces staying in the country into next year. Then on August 14, Vice President Tariq Hashemi of the National Movement was quoted as saying that a U.S. withdrawal would improve security, but that the Americans could provide training, although Iraq had other options. Finally, in mid-September, Deputy Premier Hussein Shahristani, who is a close ally of Maliki, said that the U.S. was only needed for training. The Sadrists were the only ones to consistently reject any U.S. military presence in the country. The Obama administration seemed to be willing to go along with a much smaller force as well, when it leaked to the press that it was considering only 3,000 troops to stay past the end of the year. The sticking point appears to be the immunity issue. The problem for Washington is that Baghdad holds all the cards, and can dictate the terms, so if the White House wants to keep some forces it will have to go along with what Maliki wants.
The way the October 4 conference will be reported in the United States, and its real importance for Iraq will be completely different. In America, all the stories will be about how Baghdad agreed to have U.S. trainers, but will not grant them immunity. This ignores the fact, that this was already agreed upon last month. The fact that the meeting was about resolving the differences within the government will likely not be mentioned at all. That’s the real significance. President Talabani has tried to act as a mediator between the country’s feuding parties, but Maliki has been able to twist the talks to focus upon the Americans. He knows that his opponents and critics are so divided that he doesn’t have to deal with any of their complaints. The impending U.S. withdrawal however is something that almost all the parties agree upon except for the Sadrists, and can easily distract them from the more important issues facing Iraq. That’s why the premier has used this tactic twice so far. This way Maliki can stay in power, and act largely unilaterally without making any real compromises to others.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq VP says US pullout will improve security,” 8/14/11
Jakes, Lara and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqi budget crunch slowing US troops decision,” Associated Press, 9/21/11
Aswat al-Iraq, “Political Parties in Kurdish delegation to Baghdad,” 10/3/11
Fox News, “Sources: Obama Administration to Drop Troop Levels in Iraq to 3,000,” 9/6/11
National Iraqi News Agency, “Dabbagh announces political leaders’ agreement on Iraqi forces need for training, equipping,” 10/4/11
- “MP: Iraqi Front for National Dialogue refuse staying any American soldier under any name,” 8/8/11
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “Kurdish PM: Iraq in Great Need Of U.S. Forces After 2011,” MEMRI Blog, 8/11/11
Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics No. 20,” 8/11/11
Visser, Reidar, “Of “Instructors” and Interests in Iraq,” Middle East Report, 8/22/11
Al-Zaman, “Majority in Iraqi Parliament Against Granting U.S. Trainers Immunity,” MEMRI Blog, 8/15/11