Created: Tuesday, 15 February 2011 13:51
FRFI 219 February / March 2011
At the end of December 2010, the Iraqi parliament finally endorsed Nouri Al-Maliki as prime minister, nine months after the elections. In a compromise deal following pressure from both the US and Iran, Sunni candidates received nine ministries and one of three deputy prime ministers. Iyad Allawi, favoured candidate of the US, whose Sunni-supported Iraqiya alliance won the most seats in the election, called for ‘real reconciliation’, having previously repudiated any coalition with Al Maliki. Supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr received eight junior ministries. The Sadrists had also previously refused to join any government headed by Al Maliki, who had backed US attempts to destroy the Sadrist militia, the Mehdi Army, in 2007. Al Sadr himself returned from four years’ self-imposed exile in Iran and called on his supporters to give the new government a chance.
Iran will maintain its influence on Iraq through the Shia parties. The acting Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Baghdad on the same day that Al Sadr returned. The US, however, will expect the new government to rubber-stamp their plans for a long-term military presence in the country. In an interview in The Wall Street Journal at the end of 2010, Al Maliki said that the expiry date of the present State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on 31 December 2011 was an unalterable date on which ‘the last American soldier will leave Iraq’. However, several high ranking members of the Iraqi government and military have stated that Iraqi forces are not ready to take over responsibility for security without support and that if the US leave they would have to seek assistance from Iran or Russia. Iran has already offered troops. So, Al Maliki went on to say, ‘If the new government, with parliament’s approval, wanted to reach another agreement, with America, or another country, that’s another matter.’ He also pointed out that ‘security co-operation’ between the US and Iraq is already approved under the wider Strategic Framework Agreement. This would allow US forces to remain should the US provoke a crisis with Iran.
Throughout the autumn, Puneet Tanwar, senior director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq on the US National Security Council, was already meeting with senior Iraqi civilian and military officials to discuss ways to sidestep SOFA. One proposal was to retain around 15,000 combat troops, under cover of the State Department force, to provide security for US officials in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil, Mosul and Basra. Another was to augment the special operations force because it is not publicly acknowledged to be in Iraq. Commander of US forces General Odierno, who has deployed the 4th division along the Kurdish/Arab line in northern Iraq, where conflict is expected in the next two years, suggested the troops could remain there under the auspices of the UN.
In his homecoming speech Al Sadr called on his supporters to maintain strong but opposition to the US occupation and reiterated that the SOFA deadline was not negotiable. In any vote in the Iraqi parliament, however, the supporters of Al Maliki and Allawi, combined with the Kurds, would have a majority.