Secular and nationalist opponents of the Baghdad regime of Nouri al-Maliki failed, and spectacularly so, to block the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and their failure is not a surprise. The ruling alliance of Shiite religious parties and Kurds, who moved forward with the tacit support of Iran, steamrollered opposition to the accord, which passed with at least 144 votes out of 198 members of parliament in attendance.
"A huge number of members left the country, supposedly on hajj [to Mecca] or for other reasons," said a leading Iraqi insider.
But, although the vote is a victory for Maliki, it says little about the future stability and security of the Iraqi state. And it says even less about the future of US-Iraq relations.
One important aspect of the back-and-forth among competing political blocs in advance of the vote is that Maliki felt compelled to make promises to the opposition about steps toward dealing with the many unresolved issues that threaten to explode Iraq in 2009.
A sharp-eyed analysis comes from Reidar Visser, research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and member of the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo, who writes:
"Among the key demands [of the opposition] was a pledge by the government to work to reform the constitution and the political system of the country more generally, as well as committing to revisit the laws relating to the general amnesty law and the treatment of former Baathists and to work for the reintegration of the Awakening councils (al-sahwat) in the Iraqi security forces."
Still, though Maliki made concessions to the opposition to win their support (or at least their abstention) in the SOFA vote, in my opinion the Iraqi prime minister has no intention of fulfilling those promises. He continues to build his own power, strengthening his control over the Iraqi armed forces, and organizing paramilitary tribal councils in province after province that look like private, pro-Maliki militias. It bodes ill for the future. Adds Visser:
"Based on his past actions, it seems doubtful that Maliki realises the need to also abolish the system of sectarian domination through ethno-sectarian quotas, and without this kind of profound overhaul of the Iraqi system, an American withdrawal in the context of a Maliki government could mean a turn to greater authoritarianism or even covert or tacit Iranian support."
A highly placed Iraqi source told me that Maliki and Iran worked closely together, with the support of the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), to pass the SOFA:
"Everybody knows the game. Maliki spent months saying, 'No, no, no' to the SOFA, and then all of a sudden he said 'Yes.' He did that when Iran gave him the green light."
But the Iraqi source said that Maliki is also engaged in a deadly behind-the-scenes fight with ISCI for preeminence in the upcoming provincial elections (January 2009) and then the national parliamentary elections (December 2009), adding that Maliki is using his power as prime minister to build up the smallish Dawa party that he leads:
"Maliki is building up his tribal councils in order to support Dawa. He's putting his people in place everywhere. He's fired all of the inspector generals that checked his power in the ministries, replacing them with loyalists. He's cleaned up the oil ministry, and put his people in there. And he's lining up support among the generals."
So the underlying conflicts are unresolved. The Kurdish power grab in the north, around Kirkuk, and in border regions next to Kurdistan is careening towards a showdown that is likely to turn violent in 2009. The intra-Shiite tensions -- Dawa vs. ISCI vs. Muqtada al-Sadr's movement -- are also likely to get ugly. And the biggest problem of all is the power of the 100,000-strong Sunni Awakening movement. Despite Maliki's supposed concessions, he's not budging on bringing the Awakening and its allies into a power-sharing arrangement. That's a formula for renewed civil war, with Iran backing Maliki and Saudi Arabia and other Arab states backing the Sunnis and their allied tribes.
For Barack Obama, the pact need not tie his hands. He can withdraw US troops faster the pact calls for. By the same token, he can withdraw them more slowly than his promised 16-month timetable for evacuating all fifteen US combat brigades. Undoubtedly, Obama will get advice from the military, from Centcom commander David Petraeus, and from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (Obama's choice for the Pentagon) to slow the pace of withdrawal. They will also advise him to negotiate a post-2011 continuing US military presence in Iraq, despite the pact's deadline for a complete US withdrawal by then. It's all up for grabs.
What Maliki wants is for the United States to continue to build up his armed forces while allowing him free rein to consolidate political power at the expense of the nationalist and secular opposition. That's what Iran wants, too. It might be tempting for Obama to go along, but if he does, Iraq may explode. Of course, Iraq may explode whatever Obama does. But as he pulls US forces out, he'd better work hard to get Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other world and regional powers to help underwrite true reconciliation in Iraq. It's his only chance to avoid renewed civil war in Iraq.