shiitestingposter_crop2.jpgTo say the least, it’s been an interesting weekend for anyone following political developments involving the United States and Iraq.  As if Barack Obama’s post-primaries trip to Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq wasn’t enough, we had Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki issuing a surprisingly explicit endorsement of Obama’s proposed timetable for withdrawing American combat troops:

Maliki: . . . U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic.

This was followed by pressure from the Bushites to issue an unconvincing denial, but Robert Reid of the Associated Press thinks he knows what’s really going on:

The Iraqi prime minister’s seeming endorsement of Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad’s strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America’s military mission.

. . . Already, the Iraqi strategy has succeeded in persuading the White House to agree to a "general time horizon" for removing U.S. troops — long a goal of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government

 . . . In the past, the Iraqis would have bowed to American pressure. This time, they saw an option in Obama, a longtime critic of the war. They could press for a short-term agreement with the administration and take their chances with a new president — Obama or McCain.

. . . "Let’s squeeze them," al-Maliki told his advisers, who related the conversation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. 

Wow.  It’s hard to imagine the words "Let’s squeeze them" coming from a weak puppet like Maliki — or, at least, the Maliki that’s frequently been portrayed not just in the media but on progressive blogs.  As Abu Aardvark wrote today, "I know that I’m not the only one who has generally assumed that Maliki and most of the ruling elite preferred McCain’s vision of endless, unconditional American military support."

Fortunately, the denizens of this humble ‘Lake have been occasionally exposed to a different point of view — namely (*ahem*) mine, as I accurately picked up signs several weeks ago that the Iraqi government would "prefer to deal with someone sane Barack Obama rather than another Republican president reading from the neocon playbook," and suggested that readers "consider what more Iraqis might do to make their preferences known between now and November."

I think that the key mistake many observers (perhaps including Abu Aardvark et al.) make is to assume that there are only two sides to the Iraqi situation: the U.S. occupation and those who ally with it, and the "resistance" (Sunni, Sadrist, or whatever) that takes up arms against it.  They forget that the government Maliki represents wasn’t created by the Americans — it came about following popular elections demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who also established the coalition to which Maliki belongs and lent his considerable prestige to ensure its victory.  And Sistani probably didn’t go through all that trouble just to be known as the guy who rubber-stamped a permanent U.S. occupation. 

Back in Febuary 2004, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post wrote a profile of Sistani that has long influenced my writings on Iraq; it describes the grand ayatollah as primarily motivated by memories of 1920 — when Shiites rebelled directly against the British, and were rewarded with 80 years of Sunni/secular domination — and determined not to let his followers miss this opportunity. 

It’s always seemed to me that his solution was to cooperate initially with the U.S. invasion, use the American military as a contractor of sorts to help cement a Shiite-led government’s power, then nudge us aside when the task was more or less complete.  Maliki’s newfound spine, if anything, just means that they think that time is drawing closer.