Iraqis Balk at a U.S. Troop Deal, but Can They Say Goodbye?

It would not have surprised Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, that tens of thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shi’ite cleric and militia leader, took to the streets on Saturday to protest a provisional security accord between Iraq and the U.S. Al-Sadr, after all, is an anti-American firebrand, and the Status of Forces agreement under negotiation between Washington and Baghdad would legitimize the continued presence in Iraq of U.S. troops, who have been deployed against al-Sadr’s militia. And in March, al-Maliki had ordered Iraqi government forces to drive al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army out of Basra. But if Sadr could be expected to have a beef with the proposed agreement, what should be more troubling to al-Maliki is that members of his own coalition are washing their hands of the deal.

Until Sunday, the American and Iraqi governments had been inching toward a deal that would create a legal basis for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq once its U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31. The draft version of the agreement — leaked earlier this month by the American side — also lays out a time line for U.S. withdrawal: American forces would leave Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June 2009 and be stationed on large bases until they’re withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. Washington made further concessions as well, allowing American soldiers to be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction for crimes committed while off duty and off base.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy members of al-Maliki’s United Iraq Alliance coalition, who have asked that negotiations be reopened. The problem may be less any one particular provision than it is the agreement itself. Despite the security gains achieved over the past year, most Iraqis want the foreign soldiers to leave — and with provincial elections scheduled for January of 2009, Iraqi politicians don’t want their fingerprints on the document. Tellingly, the only politicians at Saturday’s meeting of Iraq’s security council who did voice full support for the proposed agreement were from the placid Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq — where, unlike in the rest of the country, the U.S. army is much loved but little seen.

Supporters of al-Maliki’s coalition are particularly vulnerable to the public mood. The government has made little headway on the two issues most important to Iraqis: security and public services. Residents of Baghdad are lucky if they get one hour of electricity a day off the government grid — what’s laughingly called “Maliki power.” And though the country has the lowest levels of violence in four years, most Iraqis credit this to the American army’s surge in Baghdad and to the Awakening councils and neighborhood patrols, which the government is busy dismantling now that they have served their purpose.

Still, it remains unlikely that Iraq’s politicians will force the Americans to leave. After all, the country is run by a class of leaders who have come to power thanks to U.S.-sponsored democratic elections, which created power blocs composed of ethnic and sectarian parties. Except for a few politicians with reputations or family names that predated the American invasion, these are men that most Iraqis don’t recognize as their leaders, whose backgrounds are sketchy, and whose hands have been bloodied and bank accounts fattened by the past few years of civil war. Even al-Maliki’s bold move in Basra against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army faltered until American soldiers came to the rescue. Iraq won’t let the Yankees go home just yet.

— With reporting by Mazin Ezzat / Baghdad

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