While all and sundry in the media seem to be leading with the capture of yet another alleged Al-Qaida bigwig (always hailed as a breakthrough and always anything but) the really big story in Iraq today is being ignored - and perhaps even downplayed - even though all the clues are out in the open.
I'm referring to a ceremony that was supposed to occur on Saturday which was meant to formally "transfer operational control of Iraq's military to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government". A momentous moment in Iraqi history, some good news for a Bush administration beleagured by bad news about Iraq...the press were there in droves.
Reuters reports that it didn't happen.
"There was an error in planning between us and the Iraqi defense minister over the ceremony. This all boils down to a bureaucratic thing," said Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson. He said the ceremony had been rescheduled for Sunday.Actually, what happened was that they told the press and dignataries that it would be delayed a couple of hours, then later came back and said it would be Sunday before the handover, which had "been hailed by the U.S. military as a big step toward Iraq taking responsibility for security."
So Sunday came and according to Reuters again...it still didn't happen. This time, the same U.S. spokesman had a different story.
"There is a disagreement on the wording of the document that outlines the new relationship between Coalition Forces and Iraqis," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson told Reuters late on Saturday evening.So, not just a bureaucratic error then? So maybe we should be sceptical about it not being a "matter of major substance" too?
"It is embarrassing, but it was decided it was better not to sign the document," he said, adding that objections to the wording had been raised by Maliki's government.
...They are not going to go ahead with the document until the language is agreed upon. It's not a matter of major substance, but they're not happy with the wording of the document," Johnson said, adding that it would be signed "in a matter of days."
Al-Jazeera has more on what the actual problem is.
Talks between the United States and Iraq remain deadlocked over how much control the US military will transfer to Iraqi forces.That sounds like a "matter of major substance" to me. Nor does it look likely that the transfer will be signed "in a matter of days".
A day after the dispute forced an embarrassing delay of a signing ceremony in Baghdad, an Iraqi defence ministry source said disagreements remained on Sunday over the wording of a document that outlines the new relationship between US-led forces and Iraq's military.
"There are some disputes between the two parties. We have our own point of view and they have theirs. We want thorough control and want the freedom to make decisions independently," the source said on condition of anonymity.
...in a sign that negotiations could drag on, Mohammed al-Askari, spokesman for Iraq's defence ministry, said the government would take its time until an agreement was reached.
"We need more time regarding these discussions. There are some articles that need more discussions with the Americans. We don't want to be rushed into making these decisions. Our points of view are not identical."
So what's going on? Well, another Reuters report which has since been deleted had another detail - that the dispute was over equipment.
I've pointed out before that the Iraqi military doesn't even have the equipment of a decent police force. It certainly lacks the sophisticated command networks, logistics infrastructure, tanks, artillery and warplanes of a modern military. It relies on the U.S. occupation forces to provide all of those things and there are no plans to provide it with its own equipment until 2020 at the earliest.
The Reuters reports point out that "U.S. commanders, with 140,000 troops on the ground, would still have a big say" in operations even after the transfer. That's a massive understatement of the facts. Without their own modern equipment, the Iraqi military are utterly beholden to U.S. commanders for those operational considerations that make it anything more than a force of glorified security guards - and U.S. commanders are hardly likely to lend Iraq's military that support if they don't approve of the operations being planned.
In other words, it is a mock transfer for a paper tiger force. In reality, U.S. commanders would still be in a de facto position to veto anything greater than company-sized short actions. It is, like so much else, a mockery of any pretense at sovereignty or any tale of "we will stand down as they stand up". Maliki has obviously realized that as long as this situation persists then his populace will see his government as a bunch of American puppets and is determined to do something about it. Just as obviously, the Bush administration refuses to cut the strings.
That's surely a real story today, but it is being willfully ignored by those who have all the pieces in front of them.
Update 4th Sept. Yet another version of the truth, via the AFP, from that very same US military spokesman, "Baghdad Barry":
"The ceremony was postponed in order to clarify language in the memorandum that delineates coalition support and responsibilities to the new Iraqi Joint headquarters," US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said.Which is PR-speak for what I said the problem was - "operational control" that is control on paper alone as long as Iraq must rely on US support for any deployment that needs resupply, artillery, armor, air-support, a command and control network...giving US commanders a total veto over and true control of all operations.
Update 2, 4th Sept. It looks very like there's a massive behind-the-scenes effort to ensure Maliki remains an obedient puppet over this agreement. This from Reuters again:
Denying there had ever been serious disagreement, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters: "Both sides have agreed on the main issues. I think the document is ready to be signed, probably by the end of this week or early next week."They keep finding new ways of not quite saying what the real problem is, don't they? Although that last line is as near to it as we are likely to get.
He said all remaining disagreements were "technicalities."
The agreement, which the U.S. military says is a key step toward Iraq taking responsibility for its security, lays out a gradual transfer of command from U.S. forces to Iraqi units.
Under the timetable, every two weeks command of Iraqi units meeting certain criteria would be transferred until, by April 1, Iraqi troops in even the Sunni insurgent strongholds of Ramadi and Falluja would no longer be under U.S. command, Dabbagh said.
In parallel with this, control of security is being handed over province by province to Iraqi leaders, a process Dabbagh said would largely be complete this year, requiring U.S. forces then to receive approval for any movements across the country.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said Iraqi government lawyers had recommended that some articles of the document, drafted by U.S.-led forces, be rewritten.
"It is a very important document because it deals with the whole handover of sovereignty," Askari told reporters.
U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson called the disagreements "legalistic."
With U.S. forces in Iraq dying almost daily and the threat of a sectarian civil war looming, the U.S. military is anxious for Iraq's new army to take over security.
Although mindful of his dependency on U.S. military power, Maliki is keen to be seen winning independence from Washington. A government source told Reuters the Shi'ite prime minister was pushing for guarantees that his forces would have freedom to make decisions independently. [Emphasis mine - C]
And isn't that line about this agreement dealing with "the whole handover of sovereignty" revealing? Didn't the handover of sovereignty already happen back in 2004, according to Dubya? This agreement will be the same kind of false handover as the original.