Thursday, July 30, 2009

Iraq Update

As agreed in November 2008 between U.S. President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, July 1, 2009 was set as the date for transferring sovereignty over military operations in Iraq. As the 130,000 U.S. forces still in Iraq pulled back from cities and towns and settled in temporary base camps in less populous areas, Baghdad took full command and control of decisions on the conduct of all military and police operations in Iraq.

After a mere month, it has already become apparent that what George Bush thought he had negotiated in November with al-Maliki in no way reserved for the remaining American forces any say in day-to-day operations by Iraqis. President Bush apparently thought that the 130,000 U.S. troops left in Iraq as “combat trainers” would be allowed to participate in actual operations against insurgents that the Iraqi army was conducting.

The Iraqis saw the U.S. mission differently – or at least different from what the Pentagon thought. Washington was expected to continue training Iraq forces in counter-insurgency. Americans were also to execute defensive actions to protect their bases – nothing radical about that. But when it came to implementing offensive operations, Iraq commanders set their own pace – often planning and initiating operations that ignore suggestions from U.S. counterparts acting as “trainers” expecting to deploy with the Iraq units.

There were more sensitive issues between U.S. and Iraqi commanders. One nearly induced a complete melt-down with Iraq soldiers following a firefight between U.S. soldiers and insurgents in which Iraqi noncombatants were wounded. While American officials were examining the incident, an Iraqi army general arrived and, having listened to the civilians, declared that the U.S. soldiers had indiscriminately fired their weapons near or at civilians when returning the insurgent’s fire. The Iraqi general ordered his soldiers to arrest the Americans for breaking the November 2008 agreements, but within hours he was reversed by the Iraq prime minister.

A similar “foreign trainer” sticking point has soured relations with British forces that had remained in Iraq in July to help with training of the Iraqi navy. The November 2009 accords had not included UK troops as part of the foreign contingent remaining in Iraq as military instructors. This “omission” was to be remedied by the Iraqi parliament in July through legislation. As is the custom in Iraq, parliament takes time off in August. This year the legislature ended its session without taking up the issue. This omission forced the UK to pull its 150 Royal Navy sailors back to Kuwait where they would normally remain until the Iraqis reconvened. This year, however, Ramadan runs from late August to late September, which means the legislation will not be considered before October at the earliest.

The most recent clash involving Washington and Baghdad interests reveals just how far the Iraqis are pushing in exercising the sovereignty they have reclaimed from the Americans.

For a number of years, Washington has provided support and resources for a “terrorist” group of Iranians whose base is in Iraq. Known as the Mujaheddine –e Khalq (MEK), they have been providing information on the current development of Tehran’s nuclear power/weapon program in return for being supported and protected by American intelligence. Tehran has asked Baghdad to expel the insurgents back to Iran. Al-Maliki was willing to evict the Iranian group in order to improve political exchanges with Iran despite continuous tensions along their border.

And speaking of politics, it is not too much to watch relations between Kurdish Iraq and Arab Iraq sour. How oil contracts are awarded – and who profits – remains contentious. Last weekend’s election by the Kurds for their parliament saw the emergence of a new party that successfully challenged the prevailing status quo. And the failure to resolve the fate of Mosul as an ethnic Kurd or Arab city may provide Baghdad with an excuse to deploy more army and police units into the northern provinces in a bid to regain influence – a move the former Kurdish pesh merga undoubtedly will resist.

More to come on Afghanistan.

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