Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January 14th, 2011

Meagre Results for Biden in Baghdad?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 14 January 2011 14:41

Vice President Joe Biden has so far been unusually tight-lipped about his recent trip to Iraq, the latest in a string of increasingly unsurprising “surprise” visits.

Could it be that the results are not particularly positive? The assumed list of real US desiderata in Iraq right now is as follows: 1. Renegotiation of the SOFA to allow some US forces to stay beyond 2011; 2. Establishment of the national council for strategic policies that was promised during the negotiations leading up to the formation of the Maliki government in late December; 3. Completion of that government without Maliki himself (or the Sadrists) emerging too strong with respect to the security ministries. It can be safely assumed that these issues were talked about, or at least that Biden attempted to talk about them, behind close doors. However, all that has been reported in public concerns the essentially ornamental “Strategic Framework Agreement”, which unlike the SOFA is an empty, non-committal arrangement with few real implications despite all the spin surrounding it.

On the other hand, on the three assumed key issues there has been no development reported, which after all is not terribly surprising. Regarding the SOFA, this is related to a straw-man argument that has been making the rounds in Washington for the past year, to the effect that Maliki secretly wants US forces to stay beyond 2011 and that only the evil Sadrists – with Iranian instigation – can prevent him for asking for an extension of their presence. In fact, there is nothing to suggest that Maliki is any more interested in an extension of the US presence than the Sadrists are. With respect to the strategic policy council, Ayad Allawi is still waiting in the wings but indications are that the draft law has now become so watered down that the council will have no meaningful role – though if it does come into existence eventually (that’s after the Iraqi parliament has decided on committees and a budget, at the earliest), it will no doubt be celebrated in Washington as a triumph of American diplomacy regardless. As for the security ministries, one increasingly gets the impression that candidates personally vetted by Maliki will gradually assume control. Falih al-Fayyad, from the movement of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was recently made national security adviser.

The sad irony is that the media narrative on Muqtada al-Sadr’s recent return to Iraq has masked an opportunity for the US government to do something about the situation. The dominant version of Muqtada’s return suggests that it “reflects” the rise of the Sadrists and their kingmaker role. The truth is that once Maliki had been nominated as candidate, he did his best to keep the Sadrists out of real positions of influence at the top level of government, with only three Sadrist ministers having been confirmed so far (rather than the “seven ministries” often referred to in the press which includes four ministries not yet appointed that may or may not end up in Sadrist hands). The government that was created on 21 December was in fact dominated by State of Law and Iraqiyya much more than Iran may have hoped for, and it seems reasonable to interpret the return of Sadr from Iran, after two days of consultations between Iranian leaders and Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Tehran, in this light.

In other words, there is still a fight going on about the future direction of the Maliki government. If Washington had opted to forget about the strategic policy council at this stage, chances are that the relations between Iraqiyya and State of Law would actually have improved rather than deteriorated. But once more, the United States keeps sticking to policies that will keep the government sprawling and disunited, exactly as Iran wants.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 3 Comments »