TOPICS:‘Overconfident’ al-Maliki and US occupation

US officials privately admit being concerned that Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki has become “overconfident” about his government’s ability to manage without US combat troops, according to an Iraq analyst who just returned from a trip to Iraq arranged by US commander General David Petraeus. Colin Kahl, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) — which has supported a long-term US military presence in Iraq — told the press this week that there was “a certain degree of grudging respect for al-Maliki” among officials with whom we met, “but more often concern about his emerging overconfidence which is making it difficult to interact with him.”

That assessment contrasts with statements of George W Bush administration officials implying that al-Maliki’s public demands for a timetable for US military withdrawal are merely negotiating ploys or political grandstanding. US officials admitted that al-Maliki’s overconfidence has influenced the status of forces negotiations, according to Kahl. None of the US officials in Baghdad would “lead off with badmouthing the prime minister,” Kahl said, but upon probing further, “you get a sense they are concerned that the al-Maliki regime has an inflated sense of his power.”

The Bush administration hoped negotiations with al-Maliki on a status of forces agreement would legitimise a long-term US military presence in Iraq and control over a number of military bases, but the Iraqi leader refused to go along with an agreement that lacked a timetable for withdrawal of all US troops. Al-Maliki’s power position has also been bolstered by the decisions by nationalist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr not to launch a concerted military resistance to United States and Iraqi government.

Petraeus and the US military command in Iraq have asserted that al-Sadr’s decisions reflected the fact that the Mahdi Army had been weakened by US military pressures. However, the broader set of developments over the past year suggests that the primary reason for Sadr’s willingness to give up military resistance was a strategic understanding with Iran to shift to political and diplomatic resistance to the US military presence.High officials in the al-Maliki regime asserted repeatedly last fall that it was Iran’s intervention with al-Sadr that brought about the unilateral ceasefire of August 27, 2007. Sadr’s decisions to give up military control of Basra and Sadr City before his forces were defeated were taken in the context of Iranian mediation between al-Sadr and the al-Maliki regime.

Iran’s strategic relationship with al-Sadr accomplished what the United States military never believed would be possible even in its most optimistic scenario — the neutralisation of the most potent political-military threat to the regime’s stability. The ability of Iran to deliver that benefit to al-Maliki almost certainly strengthened the case that Iran made to al-Maliki for a demand for a timetable for US troop withdrawal in the status of forces negotiations. — IPS