A Partnership With Iraq

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

THOUGH IT was hardly noticed in Washington, Iraq's Shiite-led government sent a powerful message to Iran and to the Middle East last week. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose coalition is often portrayed as an Iranian client, traveled to Tehran for a meeting with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah bluntly declared that Iraq's "most important problem" was the continuing presence of U.S. troops. He pressured Mr. Maliki to stop negotiating a package of agreements with the Bush administration that would delineate a "strategic framework" between Iraq and the United States and provide for the deployment of U.S. forces beyond the expiration of a U.N. mandate at the end of this year.

Mr. Maliki refused. He assured his Iranian hosts that Iraq would not be a launching pad for an American attack on Iran. But he pointedly told a press briefing that negotiations on the strategic partnership would continue. He repeated that commitment on Friday, even after warning that the talks had "reached a dead end." In effect, the Iraqi prime minister was saying that his country does not want to become an Iranian satellite but an independent Arab state that would look to the United States to ensure its security.

This would seem to be an obvious U.S. gain in what, according to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as well as President Bush, is the urgent task of countering Iran's attempt to dominate the Middle East. It means that Iraq, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves and a strategic linchpin of the Middle East, just might emerge from the last five years of war and turmoil as an American ally, even if its relations with Iran remain warm.

So it's hard to fathom why Democrats in Congress have joined Ayatollah Khamenei in denouncing the U.S.-Iraqi agreements even before they are written. Critics such as Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) are professing to be outraged that the Bush administration might be forging a relationship with Iraq "that parallels the Korea-Japan history," as Mr. Webb put it. They claim to be shocked by the suggestions of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that U.S. forces might remain in Iraq for decades without controversy if they did not suffer casualties, as has happened in Japan and South Korea. Yet the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea have been among the most successful in this nation's history. While building a similar bond with Iraq may prove impossible, it's hard to understand why Democrats would oppose it in principle.

In fact, much of the controversy over the negotiations is based on misinformation, some of it spread by Iran's proxies in Iraq. There are claims that the Bush administration is seeking to establish scores of permanent U.S. bases. In fact, Iraq has merely asked that the agreement list the bases from which American forces would be permitted to operate. It is claimed that the deals would perpetuate the U.S. "occupation." In fact, they would be a major step in the opposite direction, by placing American troops under the sovereignty of the Iraqi government rather than the United Nations.

If the United States were to make a formal commitment to defend Iraq from external aggression, congressional consideration and approval of the pact would be appropriate. For now, the biggest risk is that Tehran and its allies will pressure Mr. Maliki into backing away from a partnership with Washington. In that case, Iran would hasten to substitute itself as Iraq's defender and strategic ally, with momentous implications for the rest of the Middle East. Surely this is not what the Democrats want.


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