By Gareth Porter, IPS News.
Posted July 31, 2008.
Now is not the first time the Iraqi Prime Minister sought a timetable for
But that demand was foreshadowed by an episode in June 2006 in which al-Maliki circulated a draft policy calling for negotiation of just such a withdrawal timetable and the George W. Bush administration had to intervene to force the prime minister to drop it.
The context of al-Maliki's earlier advocacy of a timetable for withdrawal was the serious Iraqi effort to negotiate an agreement with seven major Sunni armed groups that had begun under his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari in early 2006. The main Sunni demand in those talks had been for a timetable for full withdrawal of
Under the spur of those negotiations, al-Jaafari and Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaei had developed a plan for taking over security in all 18 provinces of
At the same time al-Maliki began working on a draft "national reconciliation plan", which was in effect a road map to final agreement with the Sunni armed groups. The Sunday Times of London, which obtained a copy of the draft, reported Jun. 23, 2006 that it included the following language:
"We must agree on a time schedule to pull out the troops from
That formula, linking a withdrawal timetable with the build-up of Iraqi forces, was consistent with the position taken by Sunni armed groups in their previous talks with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, which was that the timetable for withdrawal would be "linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild
The Iraqi government draft was already completed when Bush arrived in
The al-Maliki cabinet sought to persuade Bush to go along with the withdrawal provision of the document. In his press conference upon returning, Bush conceded that Iraqi cabinet members in the meeting had repeatedly brought up the issue of reconciliation with the Sunni insurgents.
In fact, after Bush had left, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, said he had asked Bush to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces. Then President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, released a statement of support for that request.
Nevertheless, Bush signalled his rejection of the Iraqi initiative in his June 14 press conference, deceitfully attributing his own rejection of a timetable to the Iraqi government. "And the willingness of some to say that if we're in power we'll withdraw on a set timetable concerns people in
When the final version of the plan was released to the public June 25, the offending withdrawal timetable provision had disappeared. Bush was insisting that the al-Maliki government embrace the idea of a "conditions-based"
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius further revealed in a June 28 column that Khalilzad had told him that Gen. George Casey, then commander of the Multi-National Force -- Iraq, was going to meet with al-Maliki about the formation of a "joint U.S.-Iraqi committee" to decide on "the conditions related to a road map for an ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops". Thus al-Maliki was being forced to agree to a negotiating body that symbolized a humiliating dictation by the occupying power to a client government.
The heavy pressure that had obviously been applied to al-Maliki on the issue during and after the Bush visit was resented by al-Maliki and al-Rubaie. The Iraqi rancor over that pressure was evident in the op-ed piece by al-Rubaei published in the Washington Post a week after Bush's visit.
Although the article did not refer directly to al-Maliki's reconciliation plan and its offer to negotiate a timetable for withdrawal, the very first line implied that the issue was uppermost in the Iraqi prime minister's mind. "There has been much talk about a withdrawal of
Al-Rubaei declared "
Then the national security adviser indicated that the government already had its own targets for the first two phases of foreign troop withdrawal: withdrawal of more than 30,000 troops to under 100,000 foreign troops by the end of 2006 and withdrawal of "most of the remaining troops" -- i.e., to less than 50,000 troops -- by end of the 2007.
The author explained why the "removal" of foreign troops was so important to the Iraqi government: it would "remove psychological barriers and the reason that many Iraqis joined the resistance in the first place"; it would also "allow the Iraqi government to engage with some of our neighbours that have to date been at the very least sympathetic to the resistance …" Finally, al-Rubaie asserted, it would "legitimize the Iraqi government in the eyes of its own people."
He also took a carefully-worded shot at the Bush administration's actions in overruling the centrepiece of
The 2006 episode left a lasting imprint on both the Bush and al-Maliki regimes, which is still very much in evidence in the present conflict over a withdrawal timetable. The Bush White House continues to act as though it is confident that al-Maliki can be pressured to back down as he was forced to do before. And at least some of al-Maliki's determination to stand up to Bush in 2008 is related to the bitterness that he and al-Rubaie, among others, still feel over the way Bush humiliated them in 2006.
It appears that Bush is making the usual dominant power mistake in relations to al-Maliki. He may have been a pushover in mid-2006, but the circumstances have changed, in