Why Iraq Is Changing Its Tune on Withdrawal

In a surprising development, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie made a dramatic shift in their positions in the SOFA negotiations with the US. By referring to the negotiated deal as a "memorandum of understanding" instead of using its official name, they are signalling that are doing more than just taking a tougher stand: they are scrapping all that has been negotiated since February and starting new negotiations for a whole new deal. In other words, Maliki is saying that he wants to negotiate the withdrawal of US forces, not their presence, after the UN mandate expires.

In order to understand why Maliki made this sharp turn from his formerly pragmatic neutral position, we need to examine three issues: the timing of the statements, the place from which they were made, and the parties that made them.

As to their source, it is noteworthy that the statements came from only religious Shiite leaders. Sunnis and Kurds who have been close to the negotiations and often spoke about the progress and obstacles concerning SOFA do not seem to share Maliki's new demand.

The timing and location somewhat overlap with Maliki's visit to the UAE, and almost coincides with Rubaie's visit to Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf.

In my opinion, the only reason that Maliki made his demand from the UAE and not from Baghdad is that he wanted to send a message of reassurance to Tehran: basically to reassure the Iranians that recent reinforcement of ties with Arab states and the planned reopening of their embassies does not necessarily mean that Iraq has become part of a US-Arab alliance against them.

Of course the message was not received by Iranians only. Some Arab leaders may have seen this message as a sign of Maliki's possible insincerity towards them. At least one of them (King Abdullah II of Jordan) postponed his planned visit to Baghdad -- and I doubt "security concerns" are truly behind the decision.

As I predicted in an earlier post, Maliki waited before making adjustments in his position towards the deal. However, the change came more dramatically than expected. Maliki apparently yielded to Shiite pressure from Najaf and made his choice. He made two mistakes here.

First, he forgot that while he feels that he's got to listen to what Najaf says, America does not. Neither do Sunnis, Kurds or even many among Shiite Iraqis. Second, by making unrealistic and unacceptable demands he put himself in an embarrassing position. He may have thought that America needs the deal so badly that it will be willing to make huge concessions that he can exploit in order to please Tehran and Najaf.