Iraq: With al-Sadr Back In, Is U.S. on Way Out?

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Alaa al-Marjani / AP

Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, center, is surrounded by bodyguards in Najaf, Iraq, on Jan. 6, 2011. He was greeted by hundreds of supporters upon his arrival, after four years of exile in Iran

Anyone remember what Jay Garner, the first U.S. viceroy in Baghdad in 2003, answered when asked how long American troops would be in Iraq? "Look back on the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century," he told an interviewer. "They were a coaling station for the Navy, and that allowed us to keep a great presence in the Pacific. That's what Iraq is for the next few decades: our coaling station that gives us great presence in the Middle East." Instead, as radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made a triumphant return this week from self-imposed exile in Iran to assume a central role in the newly elected government, it is looking increasingly likely that the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be terminated by the end of this year.

The end of 2011 is, of course, when all U.S. troops are required to leave Iraq under the Status of Forces Agreement that was negotiated with the Iraqi government by the Bush Administration in December 2008. To stay beyond that, they would have to be asked by the Iraqi government. But ever since the agreement, the assumption, often publicly stated, has been that the deadline would be renegotiated. Indeed, in the year that followed the agreement, the U.S. spent $496 million on base construction in Iraq — bringing the total spent on putting down military roots in Iraq since 2005 to $2.1 billion. And four "superbases" have been constructed as hubs of the U.S. military presence.

But the recently completed formation of a new Iraqi government underscores the fact that Iraqi sovereignty is real, and U.S. influence is limited. (Washington failed to get its preferred candidate, Iyad Allawi, into the job of Prime Minister; it did not even land him a significant share of power, despite the fact that Allawi's slate won a plurality of votes and notwithstanding the considerable exertions on his behalf by Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials.) Meanwhile, the U.S. military presence in the country is none too popular with the Shi'ite majority, which is the primary base of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, even if some of the Iraqi military men nurturing his security forces have said publicly that they'll need U.S. help for years to come.

Al-Maliki was only able to beat out Allawi for the top job by aligning with al-Sadr, who has long made the withdrawal of all foreign troops a top demand. The cleric, whose forces waged an insurgency against U.S. troops until 2008, has spent the past three years studying in the Iranian seminary city of Qum, looking to raise his clerical standing. He previously insisted that he would return to Iraq only when foreign forces had left. The fact that he's back already could signal a moderation of his views — after all, the Sadrists are playing a long game, taking charge of service-oriented ministries in order to deliver tangible gains to poorer Iraqis and win support that will expand their electoral power. Tangling with the U.S. wouldn't suit that agenda. Still, it's easy to understand the shudder at his return among Sunnis, whose communities were targeted in a vicious killing spree by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army during the sectarian civil war.

Some speculate that al-Sadr's surprise return may have been prompted by Iran. Tehran insists that all U.S. troops must leave Iraq, and its Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, visited Baghdad on Wednesday and insisted that al-Maliki's government refrain from agreeing to any extension of the U.S. military presence beyond Dec. 31. While al-Sadr's movement has received support from Tehran, the Iranians maintain close ties with a range of Shi'ite political leaders, including al-Maliki. And while the U.S. military views al-Sadr as an Iranian proxy, many Iran analysts see him as a fiercely independent nationalist.

Al-Sadr began agitating for a U.S. withdrawal almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when the main Iran-backed Shi'ite parties were cooperating with Washington. And he may have reason to believe that the Americans are, in fact, going to leave this year. Asked by the Wall Street Journal in an interview shortly before the New Year about the possibility of U.S. troops staying on beyond 2011, al-Maliki was blunt: "The withdrawal of forces agreement expires on Dec. 31, 2011. The last American soldier will leave Iraq." He said the agreement could not be extended or amended unless his government had the parliament's backing to seek a new agreement. So, if there's to be any U.S. military presence beyond New Year's Eve 2011, it will have to be democratically agreed to by the Iraqi parliament. And that's a decision in which al-Sadr will have a major say.