Showdown at the Baghdad Corral

In Iraq, after more than four years, President George W. Bush may be about to get what he has been hoping for: a clear reading on the Iraq situation that is free of U.S. politics.

But he might not like what he gets.

This is nothing to do with the progress report due next month or the evaluation promised for September by General David Petraeus or even the Government Accountability Office’s non-partisan review due in early September.

No. What the president may well get is a vote by the Iraqi parliament that ends the United Nations mandate, thereby removing the fig leaf of UN approval for the continued occupation of Iraq by U.S.–led coalition forces.

The stage for such a vote has already been set by the Iraqi parliament’s vote on a binding resolution that requires Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to submit any proposed extension to the parliament for its approval. In the past, the prime minister has bypassed the parliament – noticeably so last November when, without consulting the Iraqi legislature, he sent a letter to the UN Security Council requesting a 12-month extension of the mandate.

As prime minister, al-Maliki can veto the just-passed binding resolution. Even the most ardent opponents of the U.S. and coalition troop presence concede they probably do not have the two-thirds majority to override a veto. (One must assume that al-Maliki has learned the political art of the parliamentary “whip” to line up enough “sure” votes that, added to those he can get by making “concessions” on less important items, will command a majority in his favor.)

Veto Could Spark Backlash

The great unknown in all this, however, is how the Iraqi population might react to a veto. With polls consistently showing a majority–and an ever-expanding majority – of Iraqis calling for the departure of foreign troops, a veto could create a powerful political backlash against al-Maliki, one so powerful that it could swing votes away from al-Maliki and toward the nationalists. This would be more likely the case should a vote to override come on top of confirmation by Petraeus of what, indeed, is beginning to look like a failed military “surge” strategy by the U.S.

In both the Petraeus report and that by the GAO, the key measurements are likely to be the number of attacks on Iraqi security forces and the number of Baghdad “neighborhoods” the U.S. declares “pacified.” Should the former be up and the latter not rise above 300-325 (there are 457 in all), al-Maliki just might not want to risk losing a vote of “no confidence,” which this would be as it entails for Iraq a significant strategy shift. Such a loss undoubtedly would plunge the country into a political as well as a military morass.

By the way, if you missed this news development, there’s a reason. The major media has so far given it short shrift. For example, The New York Times tucked the binding resolution vote into the tail end of an unrelated article titled “Suicide Attack Near Falluja Kills 18 in Commercial Area.” This key issue drew more attention on AlterNet in an article co-authored by Raed Jarrar, an FPIF contributor, and Joshua Holland.

Definitive Timetable

Signing the binding resolution, on the other hand, would shift the pressure from al-Maliki and put it on Washington, for the Iraqi nationalists in parliament have enough strength to demand that a definitive timetable be set for foreign troops to leave as a condition for extending the UN mandate for six months.

There is little doubt that Bush would be unhappy to get that kind of news from Baghdad as it would put to the test his own promise to withdraw U.S. troops should that request be made by the Iraqi government. On the other hand, he could assume the tone of an unidentified senior military officer in Baghdad quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article who believes the U.S. has “been too passive and deferential to Iraqi sovereignty.”

Admittedly, there are many “coulds,” “woulds,” “mights,” and “maybes” in this analysis, but that is the nature of Iraq today. Yet this very uncertain state is ready-made for Bush, who thinks of himself as “the decider.” He decided a long time ago that Iraq would be a democracy, and a vote by the Iraqi parliament would be proof of his vision. All he would need after that is to decide just how long the U.S. would take to withdraw, at which point he could declare “victory” and leave office completely vindicated – even if his victory kills thousands more troops and civilians.

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. His blog is “The Quakers’ Colonel”.