Over the weekend Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered a national reconciliation plan to the Iraqi National Assembly. The plan offered to the Assembly was lacking some of the more controversial clauses that were part of an earlier draft. Nonetheless the plan signals the beginning of the end of the American occupation of Iraq.
The Prime Minister’s gambit comes a week after his national security advisor floated the idea of a timetable for an American military withdrawal from Iraq. Maliki’s plan highlights the important cross currents in Iraq that the Bush Administration has thus far failed to appreciate or understand. There are three separate wars raging in Iraq. There is a war between the occupying forces and the Iraqi national resistance; there is a war between the United States and the jihadists; and, finally there is a civil war between the Shia, Sunni and Kurds. The United States is fighting only one of these wars – the war against the jihadists.
Maliki’s reconciliation plan aims to end the war against the occupation only. This is the war the United States has been sleepwalking through in its quest to fight the War on Terror on Iraqi soil. The key elements of the national reconciliation plan that address the occupation are:
- A call for a timetable for the withdrawal of all occupying forces
- Release of all security detainees being held by the occupying forces
- Amnesty for resistance forces but not "terrorists"
These elements of the reconciliation plan have appeal to all major factions in Iraq with the possible exception of the Jihadist foreign fighters. An American withdrawal will take the oxygen out of the Jihadists’ campaign in Iraq. With the Americans gone, the foreign Jihadists become easy targets for native Iraqis and are likely to be driven out rather quickly. With the American withdrawal, Iraq will cease to be a battleground in the war between the United States and the jihadists; a new battleground will undoubtedly be chosen, but at least Iraq will be spared.
A withdrawal of American forces has been the goal of Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurds from the outset. However, they have had differing agendas on when and how the withdrawal should take place. The Sunni have always resisted the Americans because they understood that the longer the Americans stay in Iraq, the more firmly the majority Shia will consolidate their hold on power.
The Shia have used the American occupation as cover to consolidate power. They have very astutely managed to ride the American occupation without losing their political independence. You will note that the spiritual leader of the Shia, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has never once met with any American official – choosing instead to work through intermediaries to influence events. Having now consolidated power, the Shia are ready to remove the "training wheels" by asking the Americans to leave.
The Kurds are the faction in Iraq who can afford to wait the longest for the Americans to leave. However, make no mistake, they certainly want the Americans to leave. They have used the occupation to quietly position their militias around the city of Kirkuk. However, they have made no attempt to take Kirkuk while the Americans are on the ground in Iraq. The Kurds view Kirkuk, with its vast oil wealth, as the future capital of Kurdistan. They will almost certainly take Kirkuk after an American withdrawal from Iraq.
The release of all security detainees being held by American forces is another plank of the plan to end the occupation. Iraqis view these detainees as the resistance and similar to prisoners of war. Thus, they expect that at the end of hostilities, that is, when the Americans withdraw, these prisoners will be released.
The call for amnesty for the Iraqi resistance is perhaps the most controversial element of Maliki’s plan. However, it is a necessary condition for the Iraqis. The earlier draft of the plan made a distinction between "resistance" and "terrorists". This is a crucial distinction for the Iraqis. But the definition of "terrorist" is not the same in Baghdad as it is in Washington. It is clear to the Iraqis that the "resistance" is any Iraqi engaged in attacking American soldiers. To Washington, what Iraqis call the "resistance" are "terrorists". However, when Maliki or the Shia ruling alliance call someone a "terrorist" they are referring to both foreign Jihadists and Sunnis who are engaged in sectarian violence against the Shia. Washington makes no such distinction when it comes to "terrorist"; in Washington, everyone involved in violence in Iraq is a terrorist. When Maliki’s plan calls for offering amnesty to the "resistance" he is aiming to end the occupation, not the civil war. This is an important distinction that the Bush Administration and much of the American press fail to understand.
The American occupation of Iraq was always destined to end. Whether President Bush chooses to "cut and run" or leave at the request of the Iraqis, the occupation by its very nature was always time limited. The Iraqis have always known it. The only unknown was how much havoc it was going to cause Iraqi society. Unfortunately, the more intractable conflict will continue to rage. That is the civil war between the three main factions in Iraq. There is little indication that the civil war is going to subside any time in the future. All indications are that it continues to rage and is likely to get worse. Maliki’s plan, even if it is implemented, will do very little to quell the civil war. The tensions that have been unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq are now set to play themselves out. That tension, manifested in the current Iraqi civil war, has the potential of becoming a regional conflict. If that happens, the legacy of George W Bush will not only be a failed invasion of Iraq but also a destabilization of the entire region.