Iraqis have been telling us to leave for years now. Today, they told us again:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that the Iraqi army and police are capable of keeping security in the country when American troops leave “any time they want,” though he acknowledged the forces need further weapons and training.
The embattled prime minister sought to show confidence at a time when congressional pressure is growing for a withdrawal and the Bush administration reported little progress had been made on the most vital of a series of political benchmarks it wants al-Maliki to carry out.
Al-Maliki said difficulty in enacting the measures was “natural” given Iraq’s turmoil.
But one of his top aides, Hassan al-Suneid, rankled at the assessment, saying the U.S. was treating Iraq like “an experiment in an American laboratory.” He sharply criticised the U.S. military, saying it was committing human rights violations, embarassing the Iraqi government with its tactics and cooperating with “gangs of killers” in its campaign against al-Qaida in Iraq.
Al-Suneid’s comments were a rare show of frustration toward the Americans from within al-Maliki’s inner circle as the prime minister struggles to overcome deep divisions between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members of his coalition and enact the American-drawn list of benchmarks.
Nicholas Kristof pointed out the other day that refusing to leave Iraq when Iraqis want us out is “remarkably presumptuous.” Kristof’s column, very unfortunately, is behind the NYT’s idiotic Times Select firewall, but Matthew Yglesias has excerpted part of it:
First, a poll this spring of Iraqis — who know their country much better than we do — shows that only 21 percent think that the U.S. troop presence improves security in Iraq, while 69 percent think it is making security worse. . . .
We simply can’t want to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us to be there. That poll of Iraqis, conducted by the BBC and other news organizations, found that only 22 percent of Iraqis support the presence of coalition troops in Iraq, down from 32 percent in 2005.
If Iraqis were pleading with us to stay and quell the violence, maybe we would have a moral responsibility to stay. But when Iraqis are begging us to leave, and saying that we are making things worse, then it’s remarkably presumptuous to overrule their wishes and stay indefinitely because, as President Bush termed it in his speech on Tuesday, “it is necessary work.”
… Now it is true that the Iraqi government takes a different view. On the other hand, this isn’t a passing whim of Iraqi public opinion — it’s been consistently expressed [for] years. It’s not clear, by contrast, who the Iraqi government represents. The government is the product of post-election negotiations between leaders of parliamentary factions that were elected on the basis of a strict party list formula. What’s more, the political coalition led by incumbent prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari actually won the election only to see Jafari dumped as a result of, among other things, intense American pressure.
But now, as Steve Benen writes in a post at Talking Points Memo, the Bush administration has lost even that threadbare rationalization:
As war supporters see it, U.S. troops need to stay in Iraq for the indefinite future in order to provide some semblance of security in the country.
Today, Nouri al Maliki effectively said our presence is no longer necessary.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters earlier this week that a U.S. withdrawal would make Iraq’s chaos worse, but Maliki dismissed his concerns, saying, “We say in full confidence that we are able, God willing, to take the responsibility completely in running the security file if the international forces withdraw at any time they want.” In other words, “We can take it from here.”
Kevin Drum noted the other day, “Both the American public and the Iraqi public want us to leave Iraq. However, both the American government and the Iraqi government want us to stay. So we’re staying. This is called ‘democracy promotion.'”
In light of today’s comments, however, it’s even more tilted. Americans and Iraqis want to see a withdrawal, and the Iraqi government is indifferent to our ongoing presence.
This is not even the first time that Iraqi leaders have told the U.S. their presence is no longer needed or welcome: Two months ago, 144 members of Iraq’s parliament — over 50% — rejected the occupation. Shortly after that, Bush stated unequivocally that if Iraq wanted the U.S. to leave, the U.S. would leave:
THE PRESIDENT: Martha.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. You say you want nothing short of victory, that leaving Iraq would be catastrophic; you once again mentioned al Qaeda. Does that mean that you are willing to leave American troops there, no matter what the Iraqi government does? I know this is a question we’ve asked before, but you can begin it with a “yes” or “no.”
THE PRESIDENT: We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave.
But, he added, we will make sure they don’t ask [bolds mine]:
THE PRESIDENT: I would hope that they would recognize that the results would be catastrophic. This is a sovereign nation, Martha. We are there at their request. And hopefully the Iraqi government would be wise enough to recognize that without coalition troops, the U.S. troops, that they would endanger their very existence. And it’s why we work very closely with them, to make sure that the realities are such that they wouldn’t make that request — but if they were to make the request, we wouldn’t be there.
And if we feel we need to, we can always move the goalposts back and forth, over and over again:
American commanders said Friday that the effort to train Iraqi Army and police units had slowed in recent months and would need to be expanded to enable any large-scale reduction in American force levels.
The problem has arisen, several senior officers said Friday, in large part because preparing Iraqi units to operate without American backing had become a secondary goal under the current war strategy, which has emphasized protecting Iraqis and the heavy use of American combat power.
In other words, we need to expand the surge to fix the problems that the surge created.
Cross-posted at Liberty Street.