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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Some Context on the Passage of the Security Pact by the Iraqi Parliament

Rarely has there been a more shrewd politician than Nuri Al Maliki. In the summer of 2007 folks like Hillary Clinton used Nuri Al Maliki as a blunt against President Bush. Many a Democratic politician, Clinton included, were calling for his removal. In the last year and a half though, Maliki has grown and he has become one of the shrewdest and most effective politicians in the world. In the summer he shocked the entire political world when he endorsed Obama's timeline for withdrawal. Obama's plan would have troops out of Iraq by May of 2010. Then, only weeks ago, there were reports that the Cabinet had approved a plan to keep troops in Iraq for another three years.

Immediately, Maliki faced the same sort of internal pressures. Muqtada Al Sadr immediately organized a very visible protest of tens of thousands in the middle of Baghdad against this agreement.

More than 10,000 supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad's Firdos Square on Friday to protest the Iraqi government plan to sign a security agreement with the United States.

With powerful symbolism, demonstrators hanged a black-hooded effigy of President George W. Bush from the column that once supported the statue of Saddam Hussein that was toppled by U.S. troops in April 2003.

Removing the hood to beat the effigy with a shoe, they put a whip in its right hand and in its left a briefcase, on which were written the words, "the security agreement is shame and dishonor."

The government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki this week signed the pact, which would place new limits on the powers of U.S. troops in Iraq but provides for them to stay in the country up to the end of 2011, if the Iraqis so desire. The agreement still needs to be approved by Parliament and the country's three-man Presidency Council.

The internal dynamics of Iraqi politics is significantly more complicated and sophisticated than even here in the U.S. Iraq has several groups and dozens more sub groups and all of them have their own agenda. None of them want American troops in country any longer. Yet, a precipitous withdrawal would very likely reverse the gains we have seen in Iraq over the last year and a half. Maliki was facing a military reality that came up against a totally different polling reality. As such, he withstood the visible protests of Sadr and worked behind the scenes and today the Iraqi parliament approved the security pact.

The Iraqi Parliament on Thursday ratified a long-delayed security agreement that lays down a three-year timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

The pact was approved by a large majority, with more than 140 of the 198 lawmakers present in the assembly voting in favor. The vote marks a watershed moment in the era of the post-war American occupation, and the onset of a relationship in which Iraq has more sovereignty over U.S. and other foreign troops on its soil.

The new agreement comes into force when the United Nations mandate that currently governs the American troops expires on Dec 31. The new pact says all American combat forces should withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 next year and all American troops should be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

The news of the security pact being approved comes only days after news that President Elect Obama will keep on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

It may have been the economic crisis that delivered the election to BarackObama but his consistent opposition to the war in Iraq was also a key plank in his campaign – first to be the Democratic nominee, and then for president.

So it might therefore be surprising that he has retained the services of a Bush appointee, Robert Gates, as defence secretary. What's more, Gates has publicly disagreed with Obama's commitment to a 16-month timetable for withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.

These two events taken together mean that it's almost certain that Obama's campaign promise for a precipitous withdrawal is dead on arrival. Gates has publicly opposed Obama's timetable, and he's one of the architects of the surge. To demand a precipitous 16 month withdrawal now would be to not only go against his own Secretary of Defense but the security agreement just reached. Obama is likely to focus on the economy in the first year regardless. I simply can't imagine Gates would have stayed on unless he was assured that the strategy would not change while he was still in office.

Nuri Al Maliki has just orchestrated one of the shrewdest political power plays I have ever witnessed. He backed Obama's plan during the election handing him a major electoral coup, and then turned around undercut that very plan by agreeing to a timeline much longer than any Obama wanted. Now, Obama is stuck. To go against Maliki and Gates would put him in a terribly vulnerable position. If he does this and it blows up, it will literally spell the end of his Presidency entirely. The American people and the world are the big winners because this new security pact allows for the job to finish and victory to be secured. The second biggest winner is the legacy of George W. Bush which will now be significantly enhanced by the successful liberation of 20 million Iraqis and the successful transformation of not one but two tyrannies into Democracies.

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