Bush Forced al-Maliki to Back Down on Pullout in 2006

Many official and unofficial proponents of a long-term US military presence in Iraq are dismissing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand for a US timeline for withdrawal as political posturing, assuming that he will abandon it under pressure.

But that demand was foreshadowed by an episode in June 2006 in which al-Maliki circulated a draft policy calling for negotiation of just such a withdrawal timetable and the George W. Bush administration had to intervene to force the prime minister to drop it.

The context of al-Maliki’s earlier advocacy of a timetable for withdrawal was the serious Iraqi effort to negotiate an agreement with seven major Sunni armed groups that had begun under his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari in early 2006. The main Sunni demand in those talks had been for a timetable for full withdrawal of US troops.

Under the spur of those negotiations, al-Jaafari and Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaei had developed a plan for taking over security in all 18 provinces of Iraq from the United States by the end of 2007. During his first week as prime minister in late May, al-Maliki referred twice publicly to that plan.

At the same time al-Maliki began working on a draft "national reconciliation plan," which was in effect a road map to final agreement with the Sunni armed groups. The Sunday Times of London, which obtained a copy of the draft, reported Jun. 23, 2006 that it included the following language:

"We must agree on a time schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq, while at the same time building up the Iraqi forces that will guarantee Iraqi security, and this must be supported by a United Nations Security Council decision."

That formula, linking a withdrawal timetable with the buildup of Iraqi forces, was consistent with the position taken by Sunni armed groups in their previous talks with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, which was that the timetable for withdrawal would be "linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild Iraq‘s armed forces and security services." One of the Sunni commanders who had negotiated with Khalilzad described the resistance position in those words to the London-based Arabic-language Alsharq al-Awsat in May 2006.

The Iraqi government draft was already completed when Bush arrived in Baghdad Jun. 13 without any previous consultation with al-Maliki, giving the Iraqi leader five minutes’ notice that Bush would be meeting him in person rather than by videoconference.

The al-Maliki cabinet sought to persuade Bush to go along with the withdrawal provision of the document. In his press conference upon returning, Bush conceded that Iraqi cabinet members in the meeting had repeatedly brought up the issue of reconciliation with the Sunni insurgents.

In fact, after Bush had left, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, said he had asked Bush to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces. Then President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, released a statement of support for that request.

Nevertheless, Bush signaled his rejection of the Iraqi initiative in his Jun. 14 press conference, deceitfully attributing his own rejection of a timetable to the Iraqi government. . . .

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.

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