What's Behind the Growing Baghdad-Washington Rift

  • Share
  • Read Later

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush participated in a joint press conference in July.

Last Saturday, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to one of his aides, warned the U.S. ambassador that he was "not America's man in Iraq." On Tuesday he drove home the point, ordering an end to the U.S. military cordon around the Baghdad Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr City — a demand with which the U.S. military complied. Although U.S. troops don't take orders from the Iraqi government, refusing to heed the writ of that democratically elected government would make the U.S. military presence in that country untenable. The U.S. did point out that it had been consulted by Maliki, although that discussion appears to have occurred less than an hour before the announcement was made.

No one should have been that surprised by Maliki's move. What he is doing is strutting his sovereignty, which includes making clear that he won't countenance U.S. military actions that go against the interests of his own Shi'ite-backed government, and also demanding the final say over security policy. Maliki not only wants veto power over U.S. military action in his country; he also wants the Iraqi government to have control over the deployment of the Iraqi security forces, which currently still operate under U.S. command.

Maliki's order to lift the Sadr City security cordon, and his earlier rejection of U.S. timetables and demands on his government, is partly a signal to his base that he won't take orders from Washington, and partly an expression of serious differences with the implementation of the U.S. security plan. In a nutshell, his message is: Don't make me choose between Washington and Sadr City, because you know which way I'm going to go.

Maliki's concern for his Shi'ite political base — which includes Moqtada al-Sadr, whose sectarian militia, the Mahdi Army, is believed to be the target of the U.S. operation in Baghdad — drives his objections to U.S. plans. Without the backing of that base he becomes simply another Iraqi politician backed by Washington but rejected by his own electorate — like Washington's erstwhile "man in Iraq," former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Maliki agrees in principle that Shi'ite political militias must be disbanded or brought under government control. But he also believes this can't be done as long as Shi'ite communities face a terror threat from Sunni insurgents. As long as Shi'ite communities look to militias such as the Mahdi Army for the protection the U.S. and government forces have failed to provide, Maliki is politically unable to demand or even back their dissolution.

Maliki's political discomfort over the security cordon around Sadr City must have only intensified Monday, when the cordon failed to prevent a bomb blast at a crowded marketplace that killed dozens of Shi'ites in the area. The following day, Sadr brought Sadr City to a standstill through a general strike. A day later Maliki ordered the Americans to lift the security cordon.

In reality, Maliki has no good options. The U.S. wants him to do more in pursuit of national reconciliation, tackling the sectarian militias that strike fear into Sunni communities and offering amnesty to Sunni insurgent fighters. But many Shi'ite leaders see the U.S. demands as signs that Washington has tilted in favor of the Sunnis. Mindful of Shi'ite objections, Maliki is moving slowly, and that is deepening the alienation of even those Sunnis closest to the political process. Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni Vice President of Iraq, for example, condemned Maliki's intervention to lift the security cordon around Sadr City, warning that this would ease the movement of Shi'ite death squads around Baghdad.

The rapidly deteriorating conditions that underlie the political arm-wrestling recall the opening months of the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. "Ethnic cleansing" has continued apace inside Baghdad, as Shi'ite militias extend their control over mixed neighborhoods by violently forcing out Sunnis. But if the Shi'ite militias control much of the capital, reports suggest that Sunni insurgent groups are tightening their grip along road-transportation routes into and out of the capital. Such tactics have previously allowed the Sunni insurgents to choke fuel supplies into the capital. With that kind of virtual stalemate prevailing, Maliki won't likely be taking orders from Washington anytime soon.