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Update No: 066 - (22/10/08)

Undoing the deal 
After having declared the draft agreement with the Americans about their presence in the country and eventual withdrawal a done deal, and the negotiations to have gone as far as possible, in mid-October the Iraqi government almost immediately announced that after all, it was seeking a revision of the agreement. The deal on the table included a final American withdrawal by the end of 2011 and a purely theoretical right of the Iraqi authorities to prosecute American servicemen and contractors for crimes committed when off-duty. However, two large Shiite factions and several small Sunni groups opposed the deal.

Muqtada As-Sadr not for the first time, leads the opposition, he wants the US out now, but there is widespread support among the Arab population for resisting the signature of the agreement. Premier Maliki wants a two-thirds majority in parliament to consider the deal approved, a very high quota, because he fears criticism towards the legitimacy of the deal. The opposition of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the other main Shiite partner in the ruling coalition, apart from Maliki’s Dawa, was certainly a key factor in forcing Maliki to reconsider; a split between the two parties, after the Sadrist’s departure from the Shiite alliance, would mortally damage their chances in next year’s elections. It is not clear what parts of the deal the government wants to renegotiate; it might be that expecting the victory of Barack Obama in the US, Baghdad hopes to obtain a more rapid withdrawal, as the Senator himself it is reported, would like to see US troops out by 2010. The main point of contention seems indeed the ambiguous deadline in the current draft, which leaves the possibility open of a prolongation of the stay of the troops subject to the agreement of the Iraqi government and features the right of the US to the long-term use of about 50 bases in Iraq. There seems to be little appetite in Washington for accepting the demand for a tighter deadline. Some observers ventilate the hypothesis that the Americans might have to de facto impose the deal on Maliki, at the price of discrediting his regime. The deal is not particularly popular in the US Congress either.

Factionalisation continues 
The agreement with the Americans is just one and possibly not the most important of the causes of the split inside the Shiite alliance: Maliki, emboldened by his control of the premiership and his relatively good performance of the last several months, is trying to expand the base of his party and is making inroads into southern regions traditionally dominated by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Moreover, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council is in favour of creating an autonomous Shiite region in the south and needs a strong electoral performance in order to legitimise its demand. Dawa is opposed the autonomous region. Maliki, whose party has just 25 seats in the parliament, seems to be preparing for a split with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council by negotiating again with the Sadrists and with the numerous independent Shiite lawmakers for an alliance in the forthcoming elections. 

Time to be sober 
The mood in Washington is becoming much more sober concerning Iraq. After the triumphalism (the White House, Fox News etc; talking of victory) of some months ago, some agencies, particularly intelligence ones, now foresee a security crisis next year, according to leaks from the National Security Estimate. This leak might be part of the ongoing electoral campaign, with the Washington bureaucracy tired of irrational adventures and keen on a period of cautious foreign policy and consolidation, but nonetheless reflects a new trend. On the economic front, Iraq too is being affected by the changing economic climate. As an oil producer, Iraq is still comparatively well off, but its 2009 planned budget of US$79 billion will have to be revised downwards in the face of falling oil prices. Iraq’s plan to accelerate the annual increase in capital spending might be seriously affected by this revision; Baghdad has been increasing its capital spending by 30-35% each year since 2006.

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