* With no military presence, U.S. struggles for influence
* Iran's clout seen increasing, arms flown to Syria
* Maliki seen playing Washington, Tehran off
By Barry Malone and Peter Apps
BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON, Dec 20 When a group of
Americans and their heavily armed guards arrived at the Turkish
embassy for a party in September, Iraqi police outside blocked
Unless they surrendered the weapons held by their security
detail in accordance with embassy policy, the Iraqis said, the
delegation of U.S. diplomats would not be allowed in.
What exactly happened next, two sources who were guests at
the event say, is not entirely clear. At least one shot was
fired, likely a warning shot by the Iraqi police. The Americans
got back into their vehicles and disappeared into the night.
After all of the violence and bombing of the last decade,
the confrontation went barely noticed. But it points to the way
the United States has watched its influence in Iraq dwindle.
A year after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, American
officials and their vehicles have all but disappeared from the
streets of Baghdad. When U.S. officials emerge from their
fortresslike embassy compound, they are clearly no longer the de
facto rulers of the country they once were.
Many keep themselves to themselves, preferring to fly over
Baghdad rather than drive through it and increasingly avoiding
contact with the government of Nouri-al Maliki. One US official
told Reuters he had not left the compound in almost 3 years
except to return to the United States for leave.
"Americans?" said one Iraqi official asked about U.S.-Iraqi
cooperation. "I'd like to see some."
In Washington and other Western capitals, there are mounting
worries a failure to negotiate a permanent U.S. military
presence may leave them sidelined for good. To make matters
worse, they worry Maliki's majority Shi'ite government is
quietly moving ever closer to Washington's premier regional foe
Reports Tehran was using Iraqi airspace - and perhaps even
airports and trucking routes - to supply weapons to ally Bashar
al-Assad in his battle to retain control of Syria have only
deepened that perception. For some, it is yet another sign that
ousting the minority Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and
attempting to increase greater democracy was never truly in the
Washington says the relationship remains close. On December
6, U.S. and Iraqi officials met in Baghdad for their latest
meeting on security cooperation, discussing military sales and
regional crises such as Syria. Strains, however, remain clear.
"Does Iran have influence? Absolutely. Do we have influence?
Absolutely," one U.S. official told Reuters.
"But the Iraqis are the first to say they are pursuing their
The sprawling U.S. embassy - the largest in the world,
almost the size of Vatican City and which cost some $750 million
to build - was supposed to be a sign of an enduring presence.
Instead, it has become a sign of how greatly Washington
overestimated its post-war clout.
TROOP AGREEMENT FAILURE
Current and former U.S. officials say it is not all bad
news. Increasing Iraqi oil output has provided enough additional
supply to the global oil market to allow the United States and
Europe to ratchet up sanctions on Iran. The conflict in Syria,
some argue, shows how bad Iraq's ultimate collapse might have
been had Saddam Hussein not been removed in 2003.
That Washington would find its influence waning was, they
say, always inevitable.
"I don't know why we have been surprised," says Douglas
Ollivant, a former U.S. Army officer then National Security
Council director for Iraq under both George W. Bush and Barack
Obama, now a senior fellow at the New America Institute. "Now
Iraq is less dependent on us, it is going its own way."
Even as late as last year, those with knowledge of events
say U.S. officials simply never envisaged Washington would be
left with no troops at all left in Iraq. Having initiated a
"status of forces" agreement in 2008 at the height of the
"surge" launched to smother rampant insurrection, they always
believed Maliki's government would acquiesce.
"We'll get a deal, We'll get a deal," was always their
response," said one non-U.S. diplomat.
Most U.S. and Iraqi sources believe the Iraqi leader would
have liked just that. But, they say, both sides ended up talking
themselves into a corner and the ultimate sticking point -
Washington's desire its troops retain immunity from local
prosecution - was too much.
DOOR OPENING AGAIN?
"A status of forces agreement would have been good," says
Jim Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad until last year and now
a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And
we should have got one. But getting any Arab parliament to agree
to (immunity for U.S. troops) was always going to be difficult.
The only example would have been the 2008 agreement, and that
was only because they needed us so badly."
Private U.S.-hired security contractors were now providing
many of the functions - such as military training - that would
have been provided by U.S. forces, he said.
After hitting a low point last year, U.S. officials say they
believe the relationship is now once again improving.
"The door was almost closed on us, they kept it open a crack
because they had to; now it is halfway open, maybe more, and
they are throwing it open further," said the U.S. official.
"They are asking for cooperation across the board."
But there seems little doubt other countries in the region
saw the U.S. departure as something of a defeat.
"The Western governments have certainly lost weight," said
one Arab diplomat based in Baghdad. "There are no troops. Their
war here is gone. The only reason they remain here is because
they want to do business and they want oil contracts. But, even
there, the special treatment is gone."
For all the talk of U.S. oil firms benefiting from the Iraq
invasion, the Americans have been almost completely frozen out.
Instead, concessions have gone to Chinese and other firms -
although Exxon in particular continues to step up its operations
in the Kurdish dominated north.
"NEVER OURS TO LOSE"
In general, U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts have
tried to manage their differences in private. But the fact the
Obama administration was willing to brief U.S. reporters on
suspected Iranian weapons shipments to Syria suggests some may
have simply decided they have little goodwill left to lose.
"It's clear that Maliki has higher priorities than his
relationship with the United States," says Stephen Biddle,
professor of political relations and international affairs at
George Washington University and a former adviser to U.S.
generals in Iraq. "We clearly pressured Maliki to prevent the
overflights and he refused."
Simply painting Maliki's Iraq as an Iranian proxy, however,
was hugely over-simplistic, he said. On Syria, both Maliki and
leaders in Tehran had a vested interest in supporting fellow
Shi'ite Assad against a largely Sunni uprising. On other
matters, however, he is seen increasingly playing Washington and
Tehran off against each other.
Some in Washington fear Maliki might go too far, alienating
his own Sunni and Kurdish minorities, particularly with
President Jalal Talabani, an Iraqi Kurd, now ill and leaving the
country for medical treatment.
What the U.S. may have to accept, however, is that there may
now be little it can now do to shape events.
"We never had as much influence in Iraq as either our
friends believed or our adversaries charged," said David Mack,
another veteran former State Department official with did two
stints as a diplomat in Iraq. "Some Americans were guilty of
imperial hubris... In reality, Iraq was never ours to lose."