Maliki - re-packaging, re-aligning or just hanging on in there

By Gavin Jones, Director of Iraq Business News, and Partner at consultancy firm Upper Quartile. This article was originally published on the Emerging Economics blog. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

It has been long in the making but it looks like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is beginning to publicly recognise that a post-2011 US presence in Iraq is necessary for both Iraq and himself and starting to shuffle deck-chairs to mesh coalition politics with his own finely-tuned survival instincts.

An important flip in attitude was after his recent meeting with the new US defence Secretary Leon Panetta; Maliki has started talking about “instructors” and not “advisers” or, for that matter, troops. Having regular US forces or military bases and “advising” would also be at obvious variance with a stance on Iraqi nationalism and bring nasty flash-backs of the British involvement in Iraq all those years ago.

The area in which Maliki is thought to be reluctantly accepting US “training” assistance includes border surveillance, logistics and intelligence. This is actually the least unacceptable position locally and something that could be repackaged to sit well with the notion of Iraqi sovereignty: the US is considered a world leader in many of these areas; and to ask for assistance from a global superpower in these specific areas would not harm the domestic idea of Iraqi independence in the same way that the presence of US “advisers” would. However it is a delicate balance.

Contrast this with the prevailing themes concerning the “West” in Iraq:

  • Iraq’s almost complete absence of external defence capabilities comes up again and again. And while this is probably true, as long as it is presented as a general issue rather than broken up into bite-sized chunks and specific issues that can be singled out for cooperation kneejerk nationalist reactions will continue in a divided parliament.
  • The peacekeeping role in and around Kirkuk is also pretty high up the concern list. This is also something that is very sensitive to Iraqi nationalist knee-jerks because it fits so well with the belief that “foreigners” are plotting to keep the Iraqis divided to justify a military presence. Using Arab-Kurdish tensions in this will be used to reinforce views that foreigners are manufacturing Sunni vs. Shiite tensions to extend a presence in the oil-rich areas in the south.

Maliki seems to be accepting that an international military presence must be retained but make sure that the internal debate is so low-key that any Iraqi debate is avoided. Great for Maliki, interesting for the US but who and how is this going to be paid for now Iraq has a budget surplus, oil fields coming on stream; just wondering if we are going to see more US companies picking up big oilfield contracts to balance this job-saving move.

For their part, the Iraqis still need to agree on a new Minister of Defence, so that any training can be applied.

And post-conflict reconstruction rolls on …………….

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