ONLINE ONLY: A Different Deal In Iraq

Iraq begins to cut its own deals, and to reach for sovereignty

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US and Iraq negotiators are now very near an agreement for a projected or “aspirational” date to withdraw US combat forces.

Iraq is asserting its sovereignty, President Bush has adopted a new flexible stance, and both Obama and McCain should find something to claim as confirming of their positions. Conceivably, even John (“I’m not a NEO-Con”) Bolton might see something to like–such a shrunken and dispersed force configuration would offer a smaller target for Iranian retaliation should the US or Israel feel the need to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, which the hawkish former ambassador to the UN sees as inevitable.

Prime Minister Maliki was impressively deft in his reported recent suggestion that (depending on your translation) “Mr. Obama’s suggestion of eighteen months sounds about right.” The Iraq government has been dependent the last few years on stalwart support from Bush, McCain, and like-minded Republicans as a bulwark against Democratic pressure to remove US troops immediately, come hell or high water… or come invasion, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Iraq, and the civil society growing there, has in the meantime been shamefully kicked about like a football on a muddy playing field, with the stakes becoming a matter of partisan gain rather than the welfare of the Iraqi people.

With that statement, Maliki drained, in a single stroke, the Democrats’ cynical investment in the failure of Iraq’s reconstruction. One wonders whether the counsel, and understanding of the US political system, of Achmed Chalabi might have played a part in the statement’s formulation.Likewise, one wonders about the timing of Maliki’s decision this spring to take on the Mahdi Army in Basra. The British commander, Maj-Gen Barney White-Spunner, was at that moment away on a skiing holiday. The British forces, including SAS and armoured groups, were themselves away at the airport, ten miles from the city center, and stayed at that remove from the fighting for an entire week. Meanwhile the Iraq Army brought order to Basra, cleared out armed gangs, broke the Shiite Mahdi Army militia, and confronted Iranian Quds forces who’d crossed the border and set down roots, all tasks long due to be handled by the British. This called embarrassing attention to a deal or “accommodation” between the British and the Mahdi militia struck sometime last summer. As I’ve written on my blog, questions remain whether this was an explicit agreement, and on whose authority was it struck. In any case, it has cast the British military in an unfortunate light in the eyes of their US and Iraqi counterparts.

With such guileful moves on the part of Prime Minister Maliki, Iraq is emerging as a sovereign nation, an independent and canny actor, and a potentially valuable partner (when interests coincide) in a rough neighborhood. This comes at a time, in the aftermath of the resolution on Darfur thwarted in the UN, when the US is feeling in need of dependable partners, once again.

In yesterday’s NYT, its new chief London correspondent, John Burns, the longest-serving print journalist in Iraq, writes an incisive report on the putative Browne/al Sadr deal. Read the whole thing HERE.