Gareth Porter

Iraqi bases are part of a plan for permanent US land bases in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Instead of moving toward accommodating the demand of Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki for a timetable for US military withdrawal, the George W Bush administration and the US military leadership are continuing to pressure their erstwhile client regime to bow to the US demand for a long-term military presence. The emergence of this defiant US posture toward the Iraqi withdrawal demand underlines just how important long-term access to military bases in Iraq has become to the US military and national security bureaucracy ingeneral.From the beginning, the Bush administration’s response to the al-Maliki withdrawal demand has been to treat it as a mere aspiration that the US need not accept.

The counter-message that has been conveyed to Iraq from a multiplicity of US sources, including former CENTCOM commander William Fallon, is that the security objectives of Iraq must include continued dependence on US troops for an indefinite period. The larger, implicit message, however, is that the US is still in control, and that it — not the Iraqi government — will make the final decision. That point was made initially by State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos, who stated flatly on July 9 that any US decision on withdrawal “will be conditions-based”. In a sign that the US military is also mounting pressure on the Iraqi government to abandon its withdrawal demand, Fallon wrote an op-ed in the New York Times July 20 that called on Iraqi leaders to accept the US demand for long-term access to military bases.

Fallon, who became something of a folk hero among foes of the Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East for having been forced out of his CENTCOM position for his anti-aggression stance, takes an extremely aggressive line against the Iraqi withdrawal demand in the

op-ed. In fact the piece is remarkable not only for its condescending attitude toward the Iraqi government, but for its peremptory tone toward it.

Fallon is dismissive of the idea that Iraq can take care of itself without US troops to maintain ultimate control. “The government of Iraq is eager to exert its sovereignty,” Fallon writes,

“but its leaders also recognise that it will be some time before Iraq can take full control of security.”

Fallon goes on to insist that “the government of Iraq must recognise its continued, if diminishing reliance on the American military”. And in the penultimate paragraph, he demands “political posturing in pursuit of short-term gains must cease”.

Fallon, now retired from the military, is obviously serving as a stand-in for US military chiefs for whom the public expression of such a hard-line stance against the Iraqi withdrawal demand would have been considered inappropriate. But the former US military proconsul in the Middle East, like his active-duty colleagues, appears to actually believe that the US can intimidate the al-Maliki regime. The implicit assumption is that the US has both the right and power to preempt Iraq’s national interests in order to continue to build its military empire in the Middle East. A July 14 story by Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus said that the Army had requested $184 million to build power plants at its five main bases in Iraq. The five bases, Pincus reported, are among the “final bases and support locations where troops, aircraft and equipment will be consolidated as the US military presence is reduced”.

An adviser to al-Maliki, Sadiq Rikabi, also told the Washington Post that al-Maliki was insisting on specific timelines for each stage of the US withdrawal, including the complete withdrawal of troops. The Iraqi PM’s July 19 interview with the German magazine Der Speigel, in which he said that Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable “would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes”, was the Iraqi government’s bombshell in response to the Bush administration’s efforts to pressure it on the bases issue. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack emphasised at his briefing Tuesday that the issue would be determined by “a conclusion that’s mutually acceptable to sovereign nations”. That strongly implied that the Bush administration regards itself as having a veto power over any demand for withdrawal and signals an intention to try to intimidate al-Maliki.

Both the Bush administration and the US military appear to harbour the illusion that the US troop presence in Iraq still confers effective political control over its clients in Baghdad. However, the change in the al-Maliki regime’s behaviour over the past six months, starting with the PM’s abrupt refusal to go along with Gen. David Petraeus’s plan for a joint operation in Basra in mid-March, strongly suggests that the era of Iraqi dependence on the US has ended. Given the strong consensus on the issue among Shiite political forces of all stripes as well as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader, the al-Maliki regime could not back down to US pressure without igniting a political crisis.