August 5, 2008

by Christopher Kojm who teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and is a former senior advisor to the Iraq Study Group. Original Commentary for Middle East Bulletin.

Prime Minister Maliki’s call for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by 2010 is calculated to change U.S. policy and perhaps the presidential race as well. Why did he do it? Because he believes it is in the best interests of Iraq – and the best interests of his own political future. Maliki’s case, partially stated and partially unspoken, follows:

First, Maliki is increasingly confident in Iraq’s own security forces. Since March 2008, they have taken control of Basra and Sadr City, and made steady progress rolling back the influence of Shia militias throughout Iraq. The May 2008 ceasefire and ensuing pacification of Sadr City hinged on Iraqi soldiers, not Americans, taking on the mission of patrolling city streets.

Thanks to the United States, trained Iraqi Security Forces now number half a million, up from 323,000 just 18 months ago. Vastly larger numbers of trained Iraqis are available for security missions. Car bombs will continue to go off, but neither the militias nor the insurgency represent a threat to the Iraqi government’s hold on power. The Shia militias are in retreat, Sunni leaders have returned to the government, and al Qaeda’s brutality has discredited its message with former insurgents who are now “Sons of Iraq” in the pay of Uncle Sam.

Second, the Maliki government’s frustrations with the U.S. military presence – long simmering – are now on open display. Iraq’s leaders deeply resent U.S. military operations that they do not know about beforehand, in provinces that formally have been transferred to Iraqi control, and that sometimes kill large numbers of civilians. They see such military operations as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. One of the prime minister’s cousins was killed in such a raid at the end of June.

In addition, Iraqis vividly remember the humiliation of British colonial rule. That is the context in which they evaluate the five-year long U.S. presence, and they see U.S. priorities and decision-making trumping their own. For example, Prime Minister Maliki never requested the January 2007 surge in U.S. forces, and it took several days for the administration to persuade him to issue a statement of support. He and other Iraqi leaders will acknowledge to a U.S. audience the accomplishments of U.S. military power, but politics is no place for gratitude. Now that he no longer believes that his physical and political survival depend on our presence, he wants a timetable for our departure.

Third, the Maliki government sees substantial political risk from an open-ended U.S. military presence. Moqtada al-Sadr is the only Shia leader who has consistently opposed the U.S. occupation. Even if his militamen have been discredited as thugs, his message of resistance resonates widely. Iraqi public opinion has consistently, and by wide margins, supported the departure of U.S. forces. The Maliki government does not want to face provincial elections at the end of 2008, or national elections a year later, without some way to blunt Sadr’s appeal.

Opinion polls sponsored by the U.S. government, and cited in last month’s “Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq” report, make Maliki’s case for him. When asked in April 2008 about confidence in specific groups to improve the overall security situation in Iraq, the Iraqi Army polled highest (79%), followed by the Iraqi police (75%). Confidence in Multinational [U.S.] Forces was only 26% — slightly ahead of armed groups (21%) and militias (19%). When asked who is most responsible for providing security in their neighborhood, only 3% of Iraqis answered Multinational Forces, fewer than answered militias (4%). Both responses were far behind Iraqis citing the Iraqi Army (35%) and Police (34%).

The goal of U.S. policy, as stated by the president, is support for an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.” The Maliki government is visibly and vocally asserting Iraqi sovereignty, and now wants to take charge of its own affairs. It wants Iraqis, not U.S. forces, to patrol its streets and provide future security.

The best way for the United States to achieve its objectives is not to stand in the way of the Iraqi government, but to work closely with the prime minister and his government on a transition plan for the departure of U.S. forces, on behalf of the goals we share.

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