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by Shane Bauer

U.S. Officials Admit Worry over Maliki "Emerging Overconfidence"

(PNS) -- Washington seems to be losing its man in Baghdad. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister who has faithfully defended U.S. interests in Iraq since he was elected in 2006, has lately been defying his patron.

In late August, Al-Maliki made his boldest move as prime minister, stating that no foreign troops would be allowed to remain in Iraq after 2011. His assertion was a blow to the Bush administration's attempts to secure a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), needed to legalize its continued presence in Iraq after its UN mandate expires at the end of the year.

The initial terms of the American draft of SOFA would allow an indeterminate number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely with up to 58 bases in locations of their choosing. It would also give the American military the right to mount attacks within Iraq or against neighboring countries without the consent of the Iraqi government.

In recent rounds of SOFA negotiations, Iraq has refused the American proposal to give its soldiers and civilians who work for the military full immunity from Iraqi law. According to Al-Iraq newspaper, Iraq has instead proposed that "the United States have jurisdiction over its civilians and soldiers inside their bases and in areas used by them exclusively."

Al-Maliki's government has been making demands of its own in the SOFA negotiations. Last week, the Iraqi government required that all Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody be handed over to the government. "Iraq refuses to have any prisoners in U.S. custody," Abbas al-Bayati, member of the ruling Iraqi Unity Alliance and Iraqi Assembly, was quoted as saying in the London based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. "We demand that any person arrested by the Americans be turned over within 24 hours of arrest," he said.

The Bush administration had little reason to think Al-Maliki would stand in their way over an agreement as crucial as the SOFA. Throughout his term in office, he has been dependent on Washington to assist him in building a strong (mostly Shia) military that he could use to quell insurgent threats against his government.

But things have changed. An official in the ruling Shia United Iraqi Alliance told Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly that Iraq's military no longer needs American support. "Many Shia leaders think the Iraqi forces are now able to crack down on any terrorist organization," he said, "be it the Mahdi Army militias or the cells of Al-Qaeda, without the assistance of foreign forces."

Lately, the Iraqi regime has been threatening to do just that, and it is taking aim at the Sunni Awakening Councils, paramilitary groups created and funded by the Americans to fight insurgents during the surge. The militia's members, many of whom were former insurgents, have recently been criticizing the government for refusing to give them positions in the Iraqi military as recommended by the United States. In response, a spokesperson for Al-Maliki threatened that the government would try members of the Awakening Councils under anti-terrorism laws for past actions, Iraqi's Azzaman reported this week.

Saif Nasrawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government is attempting to suppress the Awakening Councils because it fears they might transform into a powerful Sunni anti-government force. He said they also "fear that Washington might slip back into supporting Sunni Arabs to contain Iranian influence in Iraq and the Gulf."

Al-Maliki's government has also been making oil deals with the major economic rivals of the United States -- China and Russia -- sending a clear message to Washington that it won't let the United States decide the fate of Iraq's oil. On Thursday, Sawt al-Iraq reported that Al-Maliki accepted an invitation to Moscow by the Russian ambassador and invited Russian companies to help develop Iraq's oil fields and engage in oil exploration. The day after Al-Maliki's invitation, the Iraqi Oil Ministry nixed plans to award no-bid contracts to an oil consortium led by Chevron, BP, Exxon Mobil, Total, and Royal Dutch Shell. Last month, as negotiations were underway with the consortium, the Iraqi Oil Ministry granted the China National Petroleum Corporation a $3 billion contract to increase the output one of Iraq's largest oil fields.

The icing on the cake of growing distance between Baghdad and Washington is the recent revelation by Robert Woodward, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, that the United States spied extensively on Al-Maliki during the last two years. The Iraqi government reacted furiously to the prospect, which appeared in Woodward's new book, "The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008," and warned that future ties with the United States could be jeopardized if the report is true.

"It reflects that institutions in the U.S. are used to spying on their friends and their enemies in the same way," official spokesman for the Iraqi government, Ali Dabbagh, said in a statement. "If it is true, it casts a shadow on future relations with such institutions," he said, referring to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Growing contention between Al-Maliki and Washington is even stirring up suspicions in the Arab media about a potential U.S.-backed removal of the Iraqi prime minister. Americans "could seek to topple or even assassinate" the prime minister, reported this Friday. The article cited a secret report published by a Kurdish political party that is part of the national government. The report stated that the United States' motivations for getting rid of Al-Maliki stem from its suspicions that he is getting too close to Iran. Last week the independent Iraqi daily Addustour cited Iraqi vice-president Adel Abdul-Mahdi, suggesting that, "Baghdad is aware of a secret plot to oust the current government through a military coup."

Whether or not these allegations are true, they indicate that there is a belief in the Arab media that Washington isn't likely to accept Al-Maliki's attempts to take the reins from the United States.

One thing is clear. Unless Al-Maliki changes face again, the Bush administration, or the next president, will have two choices: concede to some version of Al-Maliki's demands for more sovereignty and a firm deadline for troop withdrawal, or re-amplify the war.

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Albion Monitor   September 16, 2008   (

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